21 August 2012

Seneca on Death

Last week an aunt of my father's died, and he was asked to be a pall bearer. Unable to accept (being out of town), the honor fell to me, today. I began this morning reading from Oxford's collection of Seneca's Dialogues and Essays. In "Consolation to Marcia", Seneca writes to a Roman matron whose son died shortly into his adult life. The young man's mother Marcia carried her grief for three years, at which point Seneca took up the pen to offer advice.  Although it would be easy to console herself with the idea that her son had merely gone somewhere, somewhere where she would one day meet him, the best course of action is to accept it as a necessary part of life. He borrows from the Epicureans by pointing out that death is nothing to be feared, because it is nothing in itself but the cessation of sensation. Only our opinion of it gives it  substance, and our opinion can be changed.

What, then, is upsetting you, Marcia? Is it that your son hs died or that he did not have a long life? If it is his death, then you always had cause to mourn; for you always knew he would die. Reflect that no evils afflict one who has died, that the accounts which make the underworld a place of terror to us are mere tales, that no darkness threatens the dead, no prison, or rivers blazing with fire, no river of Forgetfulness, or seats of judgment, no sinners answering for their crimes, or tyrants a second time in that freedom which so lacks fetters: these are the imaginings of poets, who have tormented us with groundless fears. Death is a release from all pains, and a boundary beyond which our sufferings cannot go; it returns us to that state of peacefulness in which we lay before we were born. If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor an evil; for only that which is something can be a good or an evil; but what is itself nothing and reduces everything to nothingness, delivers us to no category of fortune. 

He points out additionally that death may be a savior: who knows what pains and disgraces might befall someone who lives a long life? He reminds Marcia of Pompey, who had he died of illness at the height of his power, might have been far more content then than he was years later, when Caesar had chased him into the sea, and to Egypt where he thought he might find refuge, only to be killed by the hands of those he thought friends.

Death frees a man from slavery though his master is unwilling; it makes light the chains of prisoners; it leads out of prison those forbidden to leave by a tyrant's power; it shows to exiles, whose eyes and minds turn always to their homeland, that it does not matter beneath whose soil a man may lie; when Fortune has unjustly distributed common goods, and has given one into the power of another, though they were born with equal rights, death makes all things equal; after its coming no man ever does anything again at another's bidding; it is death that makes no man aware of his humble condition; it is death that lies open to all; it is death, Marcia, that your father longed for; it is death, I say, that prevents being born a punishment, that keeps me from collapsing under the threatens of misfortune, that enables me to keep my soul free from harm and master of itself. [...] Life, it is thanks to death that you are precious in my eyes.

01 June 2012

Feasts of fancy

Lately I have been toying around with the idea of likening religion, philosophy, and ideology to food and diet. The various world religions and philosophies are all quite different, but the ones which succeed have common ingredients, common virtues. For instance, most religions place a great deal of emphasis on love, and most have some kind of contemplative practice -- meditation in the east, prayer in the west. Just as we cannot prescribe a perfect diet to anyone by referring to specific foods, but only to generalities (the perfect diet must include the various nutrients humans need, for instance) so to we can we not prescribe to a perfect way of living by referring to any one philosophy or religion, even those we are partial to.  We can only refer to the generalities that we need, or can use -- again, morality and contemplation.  Like food, we are drawn to some religions and philosophies because they have ideas we find sustenance in....but like food, we are drawn to others that have attractors that aren't necessarily good for us. We do like sugar and alcohol, for instance, but too much of either is harmful to our health.  The obsession some religious 'diets' have with having an exclusive hold on truth -- fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, for instance -- is like sugar.  It tastes good to our minds -- how we love being Right! -- but that taste doesn't mean the substance is good for us.

In this view, moral and intellectual life is a banquet. I for one intend to sample as many dishes as I can, to learn from all -- to enjoy the particular tastes that people throughout the centuries and globe have created. For this reason, I think of myself as a universalist -- not because I believe "everyone goes to heaven", since I give no place to the supernatural -- but because I believe all humans can and have contributed something to the pool of human moral, intellectual, cultural, and pleasurable wealth.

27 May 2012

Jeffersonian Advice

I am fascinated by the refined nature of intellectuals in preceding generations, who saw a broad education as essential in forming individual characters, and who took character in general seriously -- who dwelled on concepts like virtue and prudence which are yawned at today. Recently someone shared a letter from Thomas Jefferson giving advice to his young nephew, Peter Carr, and it is replete with interesting gems.

_To Peter Carr_
_Paris, August 19, 1785_
DEAR PETER, -- I received, by Mr. Mazzei, your letter of April the 20th. I am much mortified to hear that you have lost so much time; and that when you arrived in Williamsburg, you were not at all advanced from what you were when you left Monticello. Time now begins to be precious to you. Every day you lose, will retard a day your entrance on that public stage whereon you may begin to be useful to yourself. However, the way to repair the loss is to improve the future time. I trust, that with your dispositions, even the acquisition of science is a pleasing employment. I can assure you, that the possession of it is, what (next to an honest heart) will above all things render you dear to your friends, and give you fame and promotion in your own country. When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these then your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly. Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death. If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you. Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties ten fold; and those who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed. It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.

An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second. It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith's history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton's Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope's and Swift's works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato's Socratic dialogues, Cicero's philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca. In order to assure a certain progress in this reading, consider what hours you have free from the school and the exercises of the school. Give about two of them, every day, to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man; but I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained, by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much, the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse; and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue. I would advise you to take your exercise in the afternoon: not because it is the best time for exercise, for certainly it is not; but because it is the best time to spare from your studies; and habit will soon reconcile it to health, and render it nearly as useful as if you gave to that the more precious hours of the day. A little walk of half an hour, in the morning, when you first rise, is advisable also. It shakes off sleep, and produces other good effects in the animal economy. Rise at a fixed and an early hour, and go to bed at a fixed and early hour also. Sitting up late at night is injurious to the health, and not useful to the mind. Having ascribed proper hours to exercise, divide what remain, (I mean of your vacant hours) into three portions. Give the principal to History, the other two, which should be shorter, to Philosophy and Poetry. Write to me once every month or two, and let me know the progress you make. Tell me in what manner you employ every hour in the day. The plan I have proposed for you is adapted to your present situation only. When that is changed, I shall propose a corresponding change of plan. I have ordered the following books to be sent to you from London, to the care of Mr. Madison. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon's Hellenics, Anabasis and Memorabilia, Cicero's works, Baretti's Spanish and English Dictionary, Martin's Philosophical Grammar, and Martin's Philosophia Britannica. I will send you the following from hence. Bezout's Mathematics, De la Lande's Astronomy, Muschenbrock's Physics, Quintus Curtius, Justin, a Spanish Grammar, and some Spanish books. You will observe that Martin, Bezout, De la Lande, and Muschenbrock are not in the preceding plan. They are not to be opened till you go to the University. You are now, I expect, learning French. You must push this; because the books which will be put into your hands when you advance into Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, &c. will be mostly French, these sciences being better treated by the French than the English writers. Our future connection with Spain renders that the most necessary of the modern languages, after the French. When you become a public man, you may have occasion for it, and the circumstance of your possessing that language, may give you a preference over other candidates. I have nothing further to add for the present, but husband well your time, cherish your instructors, strive to make every body your friend; and be assured that nothing will be so pleasing, as your success, to, Dear Peter,
Your's affectionately,
(*) Livy, Sullust, Caesar, Cicero's epistles, Suetonius, Tacitus, Gibbon.

20 May 2012


If I've learned anything in the last ten or so years of my life, it's to appreciate the fact that there's much in it I can't control...especially fate. Time and again I've set myself on a course of action and decided: "This is it. This is the way my life will go," only to look back later and realize how short-sighted I was. Regardless of the thoroughness of our plans, of the care and thought we put into them, they do not always come to pass...and this is not something to be bemoaned, either, because our plans for the future aren't necessarily the best that we might have pursued. In deviating from plans, either by accident or thoughtlessness, we may in fact put ourselves in a situation where we are better served.

For my own part, part of me sometimes thinks I might have been better off had I gone directly to university after high school, bypassing community college and the 'wasted' years between my graduation there and my entrance into a full university. But had I not gone to that community college, I would not have met particular people, people who changed my life.  And the time I spent working a factory between college and university was most formative to the person I am today. It was there that I learned to be an adult, to stand on my own two feet - there that I learned the value of money and time, there that I started to question the way society worked. If I had gone directly to university following high school graduation, would I have gained anything by it? Would a Pentecostal boy have appreciated the intellectual stimulation of the university? Would I have flourished intellectually as an adult had the soil of my mind not already been tilled by those difficult years following graduation where I struggled to find myself?

I do not know, but I'm tempted to say, I doubt it. Maybe early separation from Pentecostalism would have freed my mind more quickly, but I for one think whatever mental strength I have came from the fact that I had to fight for my ideals, my thoughts, and my beliefs against oppressive dogma.  There are other examples in this theme; for instance, when I moved to university I became friends with someone who betrayed me, and while part of me thinks if I had known that in advance I would have avoided him from the start, I am glad for the experience.  The end of that friendship changed my life dramatically; it introduced me to the study of Stoicism, and  made me aware of my own weaknesses. It gave me humility, which I never anticipated needing or profiting by.  These little events could make quite a list. Time and again my plans for life have fallen apart, and for a time I thought myself lessened for it. I might groan at my mistakes, or regret hoped-for opportunities that never transpired. I might think my life had derailed...but every time my life has gone off the route I had planned for it, I've somehow found myself better off for it.

A more traditional person might say this is the Hand of God active in my life, moving me to where I am intended to be, working to ensure the best outcome. This is not the attitude I take, but when I reflect on my life I can't help but feel a sudden burst of gratitude. I didn't intend to live the life I'm living now, but I'm happy.

You may have heard the saying that fortune favors the prepared mind. This question of destiny is to me an interplay between fortune and virtue. Fortune, the happenstance of life, is fickle. It is a mistake to believe we can direct its course, either by praying to deities or relying on good luck tokens. For us, it is chaotic. One small action can set into action a course of events that leads in a different direction that we might have ever intended. We can't plan fortune;  but we might manage it.

I mentioned an interplay between fortune and virtue, virtue being (in this case)  preparing ourselves for the fickleness of fate. We do this in part by not becoming attached to any one series of events: we can't predict the ultimate outcome, so the attachment is foolish. An excellent choice one moment might set us up for great failure down the road, and a mistake might be a launching pad for greater success than we could ever imagine.

 I'm reminded of a favorite fable or proverb I read a few years ago while doing readings in Buddhist philosophy.

There was a man in a distant village with a prized horse, and one day the horse ran away.  The man's neighbors approached him in sympathy, saying, "How terrible this is! Your best horse, gone! You must be distraught." The man only shrugged, and said, "We'll see."

Shortly thereafter the horse reappeared, but he had attracted followers, his own herd. There were dozens of horses, and the man and his son corralled them all. They had enough animals to begin breeding them! Profits would be enormous! And the neighbors came by to celebrate, saying, "What a marvelous stroke of luck! You must be so pleased!". But  to their surprise, the man only shrugged, and said -- "We'll see."

The next day one of the horses kicked out at the man's sons; both of his legs were broken. Again the neighbors came in sympathy, saying, "Your only son, crippled! How terrible!".  And the man shrugged, and said, "We'll see."

A few months later, the nation went to war, and all the villages were called upon to send their young men into battle. The village's young men all went, with the exception of the crippled boy, who could not march. The nation's forces met in battle, and all of the village's sons were lost on the field. The grieving parents came to the man and said to him, "Of all of us, only your son has been spared. You must be pleased."

And again, the man shrugged, and again, he said: "We'll see". 

The fable ends there because all must end somewhere, but the point is that this interchange between the man and the villagers could have gone on forever. Life is never finished:  it is a perpetual chain of events. We can never see what awaits us.  That in mind, another way to be prepared for fate  is to anticipate the responses we might need if life goes awry. For instance, I am saving up to go to graduate school and get a degree in library science --but I am also trying to find a way to learn less specialized skills, because there's no way of knowing that librarianship will be a viable career. The jobs may not be there, or the few which are may not enough to support me.  That in mind, I want more resiliency.  I also think we need to be courageous enough not to shy away from unexpected roads. Not only must we let go of plans which have been rendered impossible, but we have to move forward...and that is difficult to change-adverse creatures like ourselves. For my own part, I take courage in the words of Marcus Aurelius, who advised himself not to fear the future....for we will meet it with the same reason we have with us today.

All that we can do, essentially, is the best that we can do.  We must make the best choices we can, in any given circumstance. If these turn out to be the wrong choices, or choices inferior to others (in hindsight), there is nothing to be gained in berating ourselves for these mistakes. We are not omniscient; we cannot account for everything, We have to make these choices moment to moment, based on information which is limited at best.  Life is not a gaming competition: there's no scoreboard, no judge, no points to stack against one another. We're alive, so we might as well enjoy it.

20 March 2012

Spring (Vernal Equinox)

Today marks the vernal equinox, the official beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. Ever since the winter solstice, in December, the days have been growing ever-so longer. Today the day and night will be roughly equal, and beginning tomorrow the days will begin to be lengthier than the nights. Throughout most of my life I have begrudged the coming of spring: I like cooler weather, and when spring arrives I know summer -- summer, that endless stretch of months that smothers the south with a hot, sticky-wet blanket of air until October -- will not be too far behind.  This year, though, I have experienced the winter more thoroughly than ever before. After a season of walking on cold streets with bare trees for company, I take positive delight in the arrival of spring. The trees are flowering, animals are chasing one another, and the days are just right for basking in the sun.

Spring, the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king; 
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring, 
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing.
 Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!
(Thomas Nashe)

16 March 2012

Freethought Friday

Thomas Jefferson, 1743 - 1826

"Life is of no value but as it brings us gratifications. Among the most valuable of these is rational society. It informs the mind, sweetens the temper, cheers our spirits, and promotes health."

p. 79, Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe

For context, this was taken from a letter penned to John Madison from Thomas Jefferson, in which Jefferson invited Madison to retire from public life and buy a small farm near his estate, where Madison would have free access to the Jefferson library and the two could enjoy one another's intellectual company.

15 March 2012

Adapting to a New Reality

From Salon
In energy terms, we are now entering a world whose grim nature has yet to be fully grasped.  This pivotal shift has been brought about by the disappearance of relatively accessible and inexpensive petroleum — “easy oil,” in the parlance of industry analysts; in other words, the kind of oil that powered a staggering expansion of global wealth over the past 65 years and the creation of endless car-oriented suburban communities. This oil is now nearly gone.The world still harbors large reserves of petroleum, but these are of the hard-to-reach, hard-to-refine, “tough oil” variety. From now on, every barrel we consume will be more costly to extract, more costly to refine — and so more expensive at the gas pump.
 Those who claim that the world remains “awash” in oil are technically correct: The planet still harbors vast reserves of petroleum. But propagandists for the oil industry usually fail to emphasize that not all oil reservoirs are alike: Some are located close to the surface or near to shore, and are contained in soft, porous rock; others are located deep underground, far offshore or trapped in unyielding rock formations. The former sites are relatively easy to exploit and yield a liquid fuel that can readily be refined into usable liquids; the latter can only be exploited through costly, environmentally hazardous techniques, and often result in a product which must be heavily processed before refining can even begin.
 The simple truth of the matter is this: Most of the world’s easy reserves have already been depleted — except for those in war-torn countries like Iraq.  Virtually all of the oil that’s left is contained in harder-to-reach, tougher reserves. These include deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil and shale oil, along with Canadian “oil sands” — which are not composed of oil at all, but of mud, sand and tar-like bitumen. So-called unconventional reserves of these types can be exploited, but often at a staggering price, not just in dollars but also in damage to the environment.
In the oil business, this reality was first acknowledged by the chairman and CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, in a 2005 letter published in many American newspapers. “One thing is clear,” he wrote, “the era of easy oil is over.” Not only were many existing oil fields in decline, he noted, but “new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically and even politically.”

Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves is a fascinating science-fiction work with a sad message. In it, human beings accidentally discover a means of accessing virtually free energy, and quickly become dependent on it. The man who made this energy source available is hailed as a hero of humanity...but nothing is without its price. Another scientist is the first to suspect something amiss, and discovers that long-term use of this energy source will prove ultimately destructive. He finds, however, that getting people so accustomed to free energy to wean themselves off of it is night-impossible. Ultimately, another scientific breakthrough must save the day. While I've tried to avoid spoilers, the novel implies that it is more likely that the laws of the universe themselves will change than it is that human beings will be far-sighted enough to end behaviors which are attractive in the short run but which will prove -- in the end -- destructive.  

We often prefer looking for ways to mitigate symptoms than to deal with the problem. Because we're not dealing with the source of the problem, though, it will keep appearing -- like a poisonous mushroom, no matter how many times we destroy the cap and stem, the underground spores will simply flower anew. For my own part, I increasingly prefer the direct approach of tackling the problem itself. This is why I'm particularly enamored of Stoicism: rather than dealing with the effects of emotions, Stoicism invites its students to address the emotions themselves -- to understand them, and so to deny them their power. The direct approach has served me well: it is why, in September when I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, I wasn't content to simply take a pill to regulate it.  I didn't want to be stuck taking medication the rest of my life, and saw no reason for doing so if I had a choice. So I changed my diet to avoid too much sodium, and I committed myself to an active lifestyle.  My doctor has since repeatedly slashed my prescriptions: while I once took 605 milligrams a day, I now take only 75, and I've lost 112 pounds to boot.  Directness bears many fruits.

The above article's premise, that the era of cheap energy is permanently over, is thus problematic considering how much of the modern world is oil dependent. The amount of petroleum-derived products (plastics) we use in everyday life boggles the mind, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. The entire global economy --factories ships, airplanes, delivery trucks, many trains -- relies on oil-using transportation to function, and much of that economy consists of industries which depend on oil for other reasons. Automobile manufacture, supposedly the backbone of the American economy, produces a product entirely dependent on oil --  and even hybrids which can use electricity rely on power plants which use fossil fuels, including oil.  In the United States, we have abandoned cities and mass transit in favor of suburbs and highway sprawl. Virtually everyone must  use a car to go everywhere. All of this is already unsustainable -- the infrastructure that sprawl demands is too costly for the amount of people using it -- but oil will make this even more so.   We can no longer take oil for granted. We must begin to force ourselves off the easy path and look for ways to live without using it as much. 

The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler

05 March 2012

The Joy of Living

Farewell you northern hills, you mountains all , goodbye
Moorland and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye
Glyder Fach, farewell, Cul Beag, Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven
Sun-warmed rock and the cold of Bleaklow's frozen sea...
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine...
And you drink and you drink till you're drunk
On the joy of living

Farewell to you, my love, my time is almost done
Lie in my arms once more, until the darkness comes
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion..
Years pass by and they're gone with the speed of birds in flight 
Our life, like the verse of a song heard in the mountains
Give me a hand, then, love, and join your voice with mine
We'll sing of the hurt and the pain
And the joy of living

Farewell to you my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone
May your wings be strong; may your days be long
Safe be your journey.
Each of you  bears inside of you the gift of love; 
May it give to you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving
Eagerly savour each new day in the taste of its mouth
Never lose sight of the thrill and the joy
Of living

Take me to some high place of heather, rock, and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind --
So that I will be part of all you see, the air you're breathing
I'll be part of the curlew's cry and the soaring hawk...
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds
I'll be riding the gentle wind that blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared
In the joy of living

04 March 2012

Confessions of a quasi-Luddite

Recently I surprised a blogger at the KunstlerCast forums when I mentioned my minimalism regarding cellphones. I currently don't have one and rarely miss it: when I did own one, I kept it turned off until the late evening after my day of activity was over. My friends and I didn't need phones to keep up with one another, so I used mine to keep in touch with family. It doubled as an alarm clock. Unlike most of my generation, I never took to the cellphone. Early on I despised the way people answered them in the company of others, even at the dining table, and regarded the practice of talking while driving madness. I endeavor to keep the phone in its place -- turned off, and hidden deep in my pockets.

I suppose it is a little unusual that someone as young as I would have such a hostile attitude toward technology. I did grow up in a generation where being tech-savvy was the norm. Not a year went by without producing some new toy  -- new game machines, watches with more features, CD players, mp3 players, etc. I used to keep up with it; I subscribed to appropriate magazines and spent long hours in the Electronics section of superstores, looking at all the wonderful stuff I might someday have. And yet, as I grew older, the allure faded. The constant stream of novelty began to bore me, as experienced prompted me to realize that no matter how excited people grew about one object or another, in a matter of months it would be broken and forgotten if not rendered obsolete by yet another gadget. By this time I'd entered the workforce and started to learn the value of money -- and for me, gadgets simply weren't worth my time and labor.

Beyond the factory, I've grown less starry-eyed about the advance of technology in general. I don't think our lives are actually improved by bigger televisions, smartphones, and monstrous vehicles with built-in TV players. History informs me that there are no actions without consequences, and the way people eagerly embrace changes without considering where they might lead concerns me. Take, for instance, cellular phones. I'm indebted to Neil Postman for giving me the vocabulary to articulate why the things bother me so: the ability to be connected constantly seems to have convinced people that we ought to be connected constantly, and moreover that there's something WRONG with not being connected. I for one like my privacy. I value solitude and quiet, and I truly despise the racket of a television and the obnoxious electronic whine of a phone. Every time one rings at home, I contemplate smacking it with a hammer. This ability of people to constantly demand one another's attention strikes me as entirely uncivilized: it is a medium of communication that demands virtually no consideration on our part, and the way people use them bears this out. They pull them them out everywhere, answer them everywhere, and let the world go by while their faces are drawn evermore frequently to a glowing blue screen, creating or reading some grotesque abortion of a sentence in English. Such is the practice of 'texting'.

Another example is that of automation. The term Luddite derives historically from a community of people who were angered that automation was rendering their work irrelevant. Their livelihood had been destroyed by machines, and rightfully they struck out against them. While I acknowledge that automation has made goods cheaper, I am also ever mindful of the human cost, and I cannot support its expansion unless some accommodation is made. I'm thinking of the other costs of automation, though: energy and the consequences of human inactivity. Although the US is in a prolonged energy crisis and over a third of Americans are obese (and susceptible to attendant health issues, like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac woes), we insist on making life easier for people. We have constructed a society where most people MUST drive to get anywhere, by creating places unsafe to walk and bike, and spreading destinations across so wide an area that walking isn't remotely practical. Our homes are filled with 'energy-saving' appliances that force complete reliance on electricity, even when they're not in use. Considering that we are still relying on fossil fuels -- of which, in accordance with the laws of the universe there must be only a finite supply -- to power all this, the system is patently unsustainable. This is folly. We have made our lives so easy that we have to schedule time for 'exercise', whereas once we actually had to participate in life. I've come to believe that effort gives life meaning.

And so, for the last year or so, I've been phasing out dependence on some forms of technology when I can. I do this in part because I place so much value on sustainable -- reasonable -- living. I do this also because it makes my life simpler, quieter, and imminently more pleasurable.  There are fewer distractions to badger me, and fewer drains on  my resources. I'm evermore free to focus on the things which matter to me; the joy of living.

It's not that I'm a technophobe or an Amish convert. I'm enthusiastic about scientific advance and technological progress, but I don't confuse the latter with human progress. I simply believe we should be more mindful of our relationship with  technology, considering its consequences. It's no more sensible to embrace novelty for its own sake than it is to cling to tradition for the sake of tradition.  We should embrace or reject ideas based on their impact they have on our ability to enjoy happy, meaningful lives. A humanist in all things, I believe our actions and habits should be examined in the light of what they do for us -- or to us. We should be the masters of our tools, not the other way around, just as tradition and culture should serve us and not be our masters.  So the next time the phone rings during your dinner, or while you are in the shower or reading a book, exercise your dominance over the phone. Don't answer it. Don't worry about it. And if keeps ringing, smack it with a hammer.

(Works for me.)

"TV and Me"

22 January 2012

An Odd Post: Science Advocacy

If you play The Sims 2, I may have a treat for you in the form of a custom career, Science Advocacy. I wrote it  in part to pay homage to the important role of science popularizers like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Phil Plait. I attempted to create a logical progression of jobs, being guided sometimes by the aforementioned gentlemen's own careers. As I haven't learned to use the necessary software yet, another user (lientebollemeis) and I collaborated to insert this track into the game. I included quotations which stress the beauty and importance of science and science education at the end of every job description; you may recognize many of them if you've listened to "The Poetry of Reality", my favorite Symphony of Science production.  If you would like to download the career, it is available at ModtheSims.com.

For those who play the game:  the skills most needed are Charisma, Creativity, Cleaning, and Logic. Chance cards are currently being added. Here are the job descriptions.

Gift Shop Employee
Motivated by both the need for money and an interest in science, you've taken a job at a science museum's gift shop. Along with the usual retail duties of working the register and stocking shelves, the gift shop provides the more interesting challenge of explaining some of the items sold (including science experiment kits for children) to the families who enter. Your enthusiasm and communicative skills could very well ignite a spark of wonder that changes a life.

"Science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works." - Michael Shermer

Student Worker
Now pursuing a degree in the scientific field of your choice, you've begun working for the school's science department. Duties include assisting the departmental secretary when not aiding professors during their lab classes. Sometimes you may earn some extra cash on the side as a tutor. Keep an eye on students mishandling microscopes or 'sharing experimental data' with their classmates, and remember -- if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate.

"Science is a very human form of knowledge; we are always at the brink of the known." - Jacob Bronowski

Teaching Assistant
Now a graduate student beginning work on a thesis, your work keeps you in the classroom where you have taken on greater responsibilities. These include grading papers and preparing for the afternoon lab sessions. You'll be expected to take a more active role there, teaching in addition to checking student work. When class isn't in session, you can also expect to help your docent with his own research experiments.

"Science is a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations. We remember those who prepared the way -- seeing for them, also." - Carl Sagan

Museum Guide
Though still a PhD candidate, your classroom studies are over: all that remains is thesis work. Moving away from the university requires a more steady paycheck, and so you've returned to where you began -- the science museum, where now you give guided tours, play movie presentations, and assist in the preparation of exhibits. Being able to explain concepts to a lay audience will be a boon here, so practice your communication skills.

"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you -- and that understanding empowers you." - Neil deGrasse Tyson
Assistant Professor
Congratulations, doctor: your thesis completed and successfully defended, you are now a scientist and an educator. Chiefly you are responsible for freshman-level introductory courses in your field, so bear in mind the audience is largely disinterested in science and hostile given that they are taking your class only as per the requirements. It may be discouraging at times, but put in a few productive years and you may be hired on as a full-time instructor with license to teach your specialties.

"There's real poetry in the real world; science is the poetry of reality." - Richard Dawkins

Scientific Journalist
After a letter to a newspaper editor addressing careless scientific reporting on their part, you have been given the opportunity to write a weekly science column explaining to lay readers various new developments in science and outlining their potential. Introducing science to the public and interesting new minds in the field excites you, and so building on that you've begun to establish a web presence via a blog. Continue to work on those creative-writing skills if you really wish to shine.

"We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster." - Carl Sagan

A publishing firm saw the material on your blog and offered you a book deal, one which has proven to be a surprising success. The university is beginning to realize what an asset you are; look forward to a promotion in your near future. In the meantime, the public interaction you've achieved with your blog is quite satisfying and picking up traffic. If you attain enough name recognition, more book deals may be yours for the asking.

"The quest for the truth, in and of itself, is a story that is filled with insights." - Carolyn Porco

Associate Professor
Ah, tenure. The university has officially accepted you as one of its own. While still teaching the odd freshman course, the majority of your course load now consists of classes of particular interest to yourself, and which attract only serious students. Teaching like spirits is much more fulfilling than attempting to reach annoyed freshmen, but at the same time you find contributing articles to magazines and to your own blog even more exciting.

"I think that science changes the way your mind works, to make you think a little bit more deeply about things." - PZ Myers

At last you've reached the esteemed rank of full professor, a badge of honor which indicates expertise in your field, an esteemed reputation among your colleagues, and years of experience in helping succeeding generations understand and marvel at the world. Your blog is a roaring success, and you've started a twice-monthly podcast that has caught the attention of the national media -- and two more book contracts.

"It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it." - Carl Sagan

Celebrity Scholar
Host of an award-winning educational television show, author of no less than eleven books, and the news media's go-to expert for all science-related questions: you are The Face of science in the nation. People of all ages know your voice, and you've never been more popular. Through your work, adults have discovered a newfound appreciation for the world around them, and parents love your show for its ability to stimulate their children's imagination. More than a few young people have written to tell you that you were their inspiration for going into science. You're fulfilling your greatest ambition -- isn't life marvelous?

"The story of humans is the story of ideas -- ideas which shine a light into dark corners." - Jill Tarte

20 January 2012

Freethought Friday: the Measure of a Man

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833-1899)

From "Civil Rights", since we in the United States observed Martin Luther King's birthday this week. 

I am the inferior of any man whose rights I trample under foot. Men are not superior by reason of the accidents of race or color. They are superior who have the best heart -- the best brain. Superiority is born of honesty, of virtue, of charity, and above all, of the love of liberty. The superior man is the providence of the inferior. He is eyes for the blind, strength for the weak, and a shield for the defenseless. He stands erect by bending above the fallen. He rises by lifting others.

06 January 2012

A Reading on Selfish Genes

From Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, p. 44

The confusion between our goals and our genes' goals has spawned one muddle after another. A reviewer of a book about the evolution of sexuality protests that adultery, unlike the animal equivalent, cannot be a strategy to spread the genes because adulterers take steps to prevent pregnancy. But whose strategy are we talking about? Sexual desire is not people's strategy to propagate their genes. It's people's strategy to attain the pleasures of sex, and the pleasures of sex are the genes' strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don't get propagated, it's because we are smarter than they are. [...] Just as blueprints don't necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don't necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is to build a selfless brain. Genes are a play within a play, not the interior monologue of the players.