Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Headed home for Thanksgiving - a cautionary tale

The long haul home.  What a drag.

Headed to the family stompin' grounds for a joyous Thanksgiving gathering, but it's been a tough slog.  Halfway home I got a flat tire on a screamin' interstate.  Started to change the tire and it started to rain -- a cold bitter rain, with the temperature barely above freezing.

My jack wouldn't work on the soft ground off the interstate shoulder and there was no way I was going to move the ol' van onto the concrete shoulder closer to the highway and do the work just inches from the drug-hazed text-messaging teeny-boppers, the 80mph semi-tractor-trailer drivers wired on meth, and the masses of jaded morning-rush-hour troglodytes.

So I called trusty old AAA for emergency road-side assistance.  Been a member with them for years.

Their response: "Sir, you are a non-entity - lower than the lowest scum."  Well, perhaps I exaggerate just slightly.

They had returned my renewal check a month ago.  They informed me that I was no longer a member of AAA because I had changed residence from their Mid-Atlantic club to their NC club and the two clubs are separate entities and had apparently failed to communicate.

Wow!  I'm proud to say that I kept my temper, even though I was white-hot with rage.  The grunts that work the phones aren't my enemy - the inept AAA bureaucracy is.  I told them I had not received a returned check, nor had I heard a 'peep' from the NC club.  So I had no idea that my membership had been terminated.

After an hour on the phone I reinstated my membership, paying an extra $40 because I requested emergency service the same day I 'joined' AAA. 

Can you hear my teeth grinding?

The fact that I had been a AAA member for years and years was irrelevant.  The fact that I had dutifully sent my renewal check on time was irrelevant.  I had no standing with AAA because I had failed to play by their rules.

They apologized for the inconvenience and said the service truck would be there by 7AM.

It arrived at 8.

Finally, after four hours on the shoulder of the screamin' interstate I was on the move again.

Did an officer-of-the-law stop to check on my welfare during those four hours that I sat there alone and desperate and grinding my teeth on the interstate shoulder with my emergency flashers blinking?  Nope.  But ten minutes down the road there was one of our finest gleefully ticketing a speeder.

Three and a half hours later I finally got home and picked up mail at my PO Box. Among the reams of junk mail I found two notices about a certified letter that had been sent from AAA to this old address, despite the fact that they knew my new address.  The Post office informed me that I had failed to pick up this certified letter in time, so they were forced to return it to the sender.  No doubt it was my dutifully offered and utterly rejected check.

I'm sure there is some beautiful tragic symmetry and poetic irony in this story, but at the moment it completely escapes me.

(Full disclosure: The photo is, of course, from a different road trip.  It was taken in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Maybe I'll relate that story another time.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Of Paradox - Huxley's Islet

Pencil drawing of T. H. Huxley done by his daughter Marian Collier

(last updated 19 March 2024)

Here is the place where I explore the big picture—the nature of reality itself—the soil in which the roots of human philosophy, science, and theology grow—the context that we live in and what it means.

What, in the final analysis, is it all really about?  What is at the root of our reality and existence?  I have a very simple answer. It’s not “42”, but it does boil down to one single word.

What word? Not some annoying philosophical jargon. Throughout human history our best thinkers have coined ever-more-complicated words—and probably burned out millions of brain cells—trying to figure out what’s going on. Terms like ‘eschatology,’ ‘ontology,’ and ‘epistemology’ got invented and people agonized about ‘solipsism’ and ‘coherentism’ and ‘the anthropic principle.’ They endlessly agonize over the inherent conflict between any being or conception that is ‘necessary’ and our observed ‘contingent’ universe.

The simple answer is Paradox. Paradox with a capital “P”.

This is *not* a cop-out or a joke. I’m dead serious.

Paradox is what these deep thinkers incessantly bang their heads against in an effort to try to rationally explain our reality.  When will they finally realize that it is the answer to the problem, not the ‘devastating contradiction’ that prevents them from finding an answer?

Think of Paradox as a 'thing'—as a real physical object. As a place. Envision it as the ambience in which “the thing beyond which no greater thing can be conceived” is housed.

By its very nature, Paradox plays this role perfectly. It is the something that nothing begat. It is the ultimate uncaused cause.

Paradox is the venue where all things contradictory converge and unify; and it is all around us.  Physically, it is the unstructured Chaos that we call “the vacuum,” out of which the universe appeared, and in which everything we observe remains immersed today.  Philosophically it is the Omnipotent God, who can make a mountain so big that He cannot move it.

Put simply, Paradox sits in the position of unassailable primacy.  It is THE essential attribute of reality.

Note well that reality can have no meaning without a mind, whatever that entails—i.e., a consciousness, a sensor, an observer. And therein lies the ultimate philosophical paradox. It is not possible to declare whether the mind creates reality or discovers it; and it is not possible to determine whether the mind emerges from a (subjective) reality or vice versa.'  All enquiry, all discourse boils down to one fundamental question: “How do you know?” (What, exactly, is 'knowing'?)

St. Anselm of Canterbury, in 1078 appears to have been the first Western thinker to write about that “greatest thing beyond which no greater thing can be conceived.”  He used the concept to argue for the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. His faith made him insist that this biggest-picture thing could think the way humans think. The Reader’s Digest version of his argument is that if the big guy can be conceived in the mind, then there's an even bigger guy who takes on physical form too. Therefore, God exists.

Well, maybe the short version of St. Anselm’s ontological argument doesn’t do it justice. But I think my buddy Paradox can do him one better. Can Paradox be conceived as the 'creator' of all reality?  The answer was given (somewhat inadvertently) by Thomas H. Huxley, who called himself "Darwin's Bulldog" when he wrote, in 1887:
“The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, …”

As the ambience in which all things are contained, Paradox must encompass both the unknown, inexplicable sea as well as our islet of well-ordered (or at least familiar) stuff.  But here's where Huxley provides the inspiration to this perspective.  It is the inexplicable realm that is fundamental, all-encompassing.  The explainable 'islet' is little more than an overblown random fluctuation therein.  Don't think of the islet as sitting on some kind of bedrock.  It's more like a grand 'Noah's Ark'.  That illimitable ocean has no bottom.

The essence of Paradox is unrestricted random Chaos.  Our connection to the Chaos is through the vacuum—a restless frothing 'field' of conflicting properties of practically infinite variety which constantly create and destroy themselves and each other.  As a simple example, it is the 'I am/I am not' declared by the pairs of virtual particles that zip in and out of being in the reference frame in which we exist.
Two electrons, both negatively charged, will repel each other.  They are depicted here, in what's called a Feynman diagram, by the two solid lines marked 'e(minus)' moving from the bottom of the picture toward the top.  From our point of view, we see two little balls that come together and don't quite hit each other before 'magically' changing course and bouncing away from each other.  Think of the way magnets can repel each other without touching. What's actually happening deep down at the finest scale is that the two electrons zap each other with light rays (the squiggly lines), and sometimes those light rays can actually create two more virtual charged particles, shown in the circle in the center. So, for a little while, we can have four particles and two light rays where only two simple electrons actually 'exist'.

Physics theory and experiment have shown that what we call a 'vacuum' is far from empty. It is actually a seething, restless, yet entirely random and indifferent field full of dynamic events and processes.  From what I understand, the energy density of the tiny bit of this Chaos that can be detected within our limited reference frame is only one part in 10 to the 120th power of all that's out there.  The Chaos is a potent force indeed.

A key property of this random indifferent Chaos is that localized, temporary self-organization can occur within it (such as the circle in the diagram above), and that self-organization is not prevented from becoming self-replicating and self-sustaining.

Paradox has no law but the law that there is no law.  Indifference has no reason or desire to prevent a self-organizing 'tumor' from forming, growing, and expanding within its belly.

As a simple example, let's go from 10 to the 120th possible entities to just ten.  Imagine a random number generator that is pumping out an endless string of Arabic numerals, 0 through 9. Somewhere in that field there exists an arbitrarily long string of nothing but the number 5, as far as the eye can see.  (It's very unlikely, but it is possible; and anything that is possible will eventually happen, if you wait long enough.)

If we lived in that particular patch of 'space' where, even with our best telescopes, we could see nothing but 5's around us, then we would have to believe that there is an exquisite, mysterious order to the universe—an inexplicable 'fine tuning'.  This patch of 'all fives' is Huxley's Islet.

I could elaborate, but I think you get the idea: We are dependent on the realm of 'all fives'—the Islet—within which the indifferent Chaos has allowed meaning (the perfect 'five-ness' of our world) to emerge for us.  Furthermore, since we cannot tolerate the encroachment or appearance of 'fours' or 'sixes', which would corrupt our reality, it is in our best interest to do anything we can to preserve and propagate the 'all fives.'  Thus, not only does (localized, temporary) meaning emerge from nothing (the primordial vacuum made of pure Paradox), but so does purpose.

Here's where I suggest a few extensions to Huxley's statement, quoted above.  If our goal is just to survive, we need to build a bulkhead around our island to make sure it doesn't erode.  The battering waves on the ocean of Chaos are always trying to reclaim the land.  If our goal is to thrive and improve our life for ourselves and future generations, then it makes sense to follow Huxley's advice to try to claim new territory.

But here's something far more visionary: We ought to be learning to swim.

The ocean of inexplicability is the ultimate source of everything we know.  Logic isn't always the best tool there.  It's a place where faith can help us.  Do not be afraid of the water.  Embrace the 'fours' and 'sixes'.  As Bruce Lee once said, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water.  On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.

Why seek to swim this ocean of the unexplained?  The human psyche craves it.  Our restless curiosity drives us to endlessly probe such mysteries.  We do not exist on reason alone.  If we immerse ourselves in the Chaos and learn something of the ways of the battering waves, we may better preserve our shores.

"Paradox - The Essence of the Universe"
This is the first trucker cap I ever owned, embroidered by hand with my long-standing message back in the early 1970's.  This was a time when these caps were just beginning to get popular as every-day headwear (if those links go bad, I've saved screen shots and will post).


* * *

In a series of supplementary posts, I've taken some dives into the enigmatic waters.  Below are links to discussion of specific aspects of the philosophical and physical 'truths' that I perceive from my outpost on a wind-swept, rocky promontory that juts far out into the Sea of Paradox.

1.  Just as our coherent, seemingly rock-solid reality emerges naturally from the Chaos, so does the abstract concept of morality, and all its basic tenets, as espoused by the great messengers such as Jesus and Buddha.  I've devoted a separate exploration of this subject here—Morality, as it emerges even in an uncaring universe.

2.  For more discussion of the physical steps that led to our particular 'tumor in the belly of the Chaos'— 'Creation' as a physical process, which physicists now believe originated from the [spontaneous?] expansion of an unbelievably hot and absurdly tiny thing (the 'Big Bang')—see the Firestorm in the Wilderness post.

3.  For a speculative discussion of how our particular universe fits into a MUCH bigger and broader picture, including exploring humanity's potential active role in shaping the universe, see The Great Stream post.

4.  And for a better understanding of the deepest, most fundamental instruction book that we have available to us to guide us through life, see the Nature's Code post.

May we all ...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ten things you probably don't know about me

Ten things you probably don’t know about me:

1.  My most traumatic birthday was when I turned 41.  I had steeled myself and was fully prepared to accept 40.  But the following year I was floored by the realization that ‘the numbers just keep going relentlessly up.’

2.  The last time I used a vacuum cleaner was in 2007.

3.  My grandfather was a minor league baseball player.  I didn’t inherit those genes.  At age ten I was a pitcher for a ‘bad news bears’ minor league little league team.  We won only one game all season, and typically lost by scores like 105-3 with me pitching the whole game.  The only other pitcher in our rotation that year was my friend Larry Blackburn.  Remember, Larry?

4.  During the Viet-Nam war, with my hair grown down to my shoulders, and despite my anti-war rhetoric, I took a summer job working the midnight shift at Lasko Metal Products making bomb casings under a govt. contract.  Yep: “Hippie makes bombs for Viet-Nam.” But that’s not the end of the irony: It was the summer of 1970. I had just been spared in the 1969 draft lottery and was thus freed of further worry about being drafted.  Others I worked with weren’t.  I worked a million-pound, twenty foot high metal press that shaped the bomb casings.  My job was to put the flat sheet of metal in and push the buttons (both hands) that operated the press.  My partner on the other side took it out after it was pressed into the shape of a quarter of the bomb housing.  One day I pushed the buttons that cleanly severed the two middle fingers of his hand.  As he left for the hospital his last words to me were: “Now they can’t draft me!”

5.  The most famous person I personally know launched a spatula into orbit around the earth.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYS4HrMji8U

6.  My very first childhood memory is of sitting beside my Mom in the back seat of a ’35 Chevy with towels covering the windows as we drove through some town along the Ohio River and she breast-fed my 3-month old brother.

7.  I have never had a cup of coffee.

8.  My favorite piece of clothing is a pair of black Ralph Lauren polo sweat pants that I bought at the Goodwill store for $3.

9.  I can make the ‘Vulcan salute’ (live long and prosper) with my left hand but not with my right.

10.  (thanks to Stella G. Maddox for this) I’m far more socially awkward than I look.  I hate crowds, parties and meetings.  If I come across as aloof, standoffish, or even intimidating, it’s because I can’t think of anything coherent to say.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reading Piers Anthony's Xanth series - two reviews

Piers Anthony is a prolific author.  He often cranks out three books in a year.  Among his many products is a series of Young Adult fantasy novels set in the land of Xanth, where magic controls nearly everything.

Anthony published the first book in the series, 'A Spell for Chameleon,' in 1977 and he's still producing them.  He's currently writing the thirty-ninth book in the series.

I've read books one through five and book seven, and have been consistently entertained by each new installment.  You don't need to read them in sequence--each book stands alone--but it helps a little, since they are chronological, and later books do refer to elements of the plots of earlier ones.

In time I may get around to writing reviews of books one through four, but here I'm reviewing book five, 'Ogre, Ogre' and book seven, 'Dragon on a Pedestal':

Ogre, Ogre (Xanth, #5)Ogre, Ogre by Piers Anthony
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fifth book in Piers Anthony's Xanth series and the best of those first five by a wide margin. Piers Anthony has a quirky, almost clunky way of unfolding a story, but the deeper structure--the skeleton of his tales--is always sound and well imagined. Some story ideas just naturally stand out or resonate more than others, and this one did. Surely that's why it was the only one of the 30+ Xanth books to get on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Ogre, Ogre is a classic 'beauty and the beast' love story. Smash is half human, half big ugly brutish Ogre. He entirely denies his human side. Tandy is half human, half nymph. Smash feels that something is missing from his life, but has no idea what. Tandy is desperately trying to escape the unwanted physical attentions of a demon who can pass through walls. Their very different quests find common ground when the Good Magician Humphrey sends them out into the wilds of Xanth together to seek their 'answers'.

Along the way Smash takes six more female creatures in tow, all of whom also have unfulfilled needs. He fights a dragon and encounters numerous other threats and obstacles, ultimately delivering all six females safely to their various resolutions, one at a time. In the end, it's just Smash and Tandy again, and Smash still hasn't figured out what he's looking for. Of course the reader well knows what's going to happen long before it does, and yet the plot isn't spoiled by the knowing. The reader still wants to find out how and where the 'light bulb' will finally come on.

As in all of the Xanth novels up to this point, the hurdles, obstacles, threats and conflicts that the protagonists encounter come thick and fast, one after another, almost always in series. That is, they come one at a time and are essentially dispatched or set aside before the next one arises. In that very general sense the story lines are predictable and simple--there's an over-riding quest and a lot of short-lived impediments to achieving the goal. In most cases there's absolutely no foreshadowing - the majority of the problems arise entirely unexpected, and more often than not they are forgotten just as quickly, unless some lesson has been imparted.

This simple writing style, I'd guess, can appeal to readers who are quite young, and not a lot of brain power is required to enjoy the tale. Yet I, as a mature adult didn't feel that my intelligence was insulted, nor was I ever bored. Anthony is good at what he does, and the quality is consistent. It's good light entertainment.

Dragon On A PedestalDragon On A Pedestal by Piers Anthony
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The introductory summary begins:

"There is trouble in Xanth again. The Gap Dragon had escaped and was ravaging across the land, the forget-spell was causing mass amnesia, three-year old Ivy was headed right for a hungry dragon. Could things get any worse? Probably...."

Yes, the forget-spell has also escaped and had dissipated into 'forget whorls.' It was these that were causing the random events of amnesia all over civilized Xanth.

Little Ivy is the daughter of Xanth's ruling King Dor and his wife Irene, and a forget whorl has passed through, causing Ivy to be separated from her parents.

This sets up the plot: Princess Irene is on a quest to rescue her 'helpless' daughter. But out in the deepest wilds of Xanth little Ivy is managing to take care of herself by innocently wielding her Magician-Grade magical talent. She's not nearly as helpless as her mother might believe.

Piers Anthony's seventh Xanth book, 'Dragon on a Pedestal,' follows the parallel adventures of both Ivy and her mother as they seek to reunite. The author alternates chapters from the point of view of mother and daughter. As the pages turn, Anthony unveils challenge after challenge for both protagonists, always unexpected, almost never foreshadowed, and usually quite imaginative. And as usual with the Xanth series, these challenges appear and are dispatched mostly in serial order.

As the book comes to its climax a deadly threat to all of Xanth, which has lain dormant for thirty years, provides the focus for a satisfying denouement.

As usual for the Xanth series, Anthony trots out a 'passel' of puns, reinforces his quaint and benignly sexist perspectives on the male/female divide, and builds his plot like a 'road-movie.' By this I mean that constant travel is involved from beginning to end, all the tension and conflict raised in the plot come from unexpected encounters along the way, and the denouement always involves (at least in part) reaching a destination.

And as always Anthony delivers an entertaining and imaginative story. These are no literary masterpieces. They're not far from the 'Harlequin Romances' in terms of the quality of the prose. They're 'light fantasy' targeted at young adults. And for me that's just fine: they offer me a chance to sit back, relax and enjoy a rollicking roller-coaster ride.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious TraditionsThe Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to be aware of this book through my research for my distant future fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Eden's Womb'. I wanted to understand the origin and evolution of mankind's religious journey in order to project a plausible future. That's a tall order, of course, but for me the study was a fascinating journey. I started by reading Huston Smith's iconic 'The World's Religions' and then began to delve deeper.

Along the way I had a little epiphany: It seemed that many major faith traditions/institutions were founded about the same time (800 to 200 BCE). I pursued this idea, wondering if the nascent trade routes that would become the Silk Road had begun a cultural exchange that early in human history.

Well, as I dug into it, I found out that my idea was far from original (few ever are). Karl Jaspers had the idea, and published it in `The Origin and the Goal of History' in 1953. Karen Armstrong seems to have latched onto Jaspers' grand theories as a way of hooking the reader (selling more books). But it remains unclear whether she actually believes them. Nowhere did she overtly refute Jasper's theories, but in the meat of the text she seems uninterested in reinforcing them. Sometimes it seems as if she finds his themes unsupportable but doesn't want to make an issue of it. That's not the kind of incisive scholarly analysis I would hope for from a book with such a grand title published by an expert. It's clear she's more interested in the detail. She shies away from big-picture analysis. Result: the title begins to come across as disingenuous--false advertising. And I begin to feel cheated.

From my point of view I wanted insight into the maturing of the human psyche, its causes and implications. Were there unifying factors that led to this period of unprecedented global advancement in and formalization of human thought?

Through my own independent research I found that this revolution or maturing of human consciousness seemed to be entirely global. Jaspers and Armstrong focus only on four major hubs of emergent civilization (Greece, Judea, India and China). What I found was that there were many more examples of emerging faith traditions and landmark human advancement that flowered during this period. Shinto religion began during this time frame as did the Norse theology--Odin first appears during this time. The first major cities of the Maya civilization arose during this period. The Polynesians were at the height of their seagoing prowess as they migrated across the south Pacific, and humans arrived in Madagascar for the first time. Clearly any unifying mechanism went far beyond cultural stimulation via the Silk Road trade routes.

To my disappointment Armstrong mentions none of these other cultures, and does not seem to be interested in the physical/environmental/external underpinnings of why this revolution happened. Rather she focuses on something she seems to implicitly assume is a 'universal' underpinning of human morality.

Fine. She's on a different wavelength. By now this has become abundantly clear. Okay, I'll sit back and let her elaborate before I pass judgment.

So now she proffers her primary theme: it's all about the `Golden Rule' -- "Do unto others as you (in your '*infinite wisdom and universal understanding*') would desire that others would do unto you."

For the obvious reasons (highlighted in the sarcastic parenthetical expression) this ancient and revered ethical directive is becoming one of the old clichés that can no longer be supported. It translates into: 'ignore cultural diversity, reject the opportunity to expand your personal horizons through deep listening and understanding of your neighbor's point-of-view, and just blindly assume that everyone wants to be treated the way you want to be treated'.

Surely (Armstrong implicitly assumes) the 'Golden Rule' is a universal sign of humanity's newly emerging (shallowly defined) 'compassion' to which all these nascent religious movements must have aspired, and thus to which they all gravitated.

To me this is not a satisfying explanation. I see no universality. I'll offer one benign example: In China you must burp to express your satisfaction for a meal. In western Europe the burp is a sign that you're uncultured. Okay, here are a few more examples: http://mrfarshtey.net/WorldCultures/2...

The closest Armstrong comes to addressing my 'big-picture' question is by regurgitating Jaspers' thesis that the Great Transformation was a result of an interregnum between eras of war and destruction and suppression of original thought by great empires. This seems insufficient, and again this is not my original thought--it is shared by other critics.

Having posited her theme for the 'Axial Age' (as Jaspers called it), Armstrong proceeds to delve into an historical survey, in chronological blocks, of the secular and spiritual events in the four cultures. It turns out that the Axial thinkers (by her definition) arose sporadically, not simultaneously in most cases. In fact she concludes that Axial thinking never really took hold in Greece as it spawned the Western philosophies.

No unifying motivation? Why publish it under such a lofty title: "The Great Transformation"? Why parrot Jaspers' themes if you don't even support them?

Here's why: your publisher wants to sell books.

Armstrong is a 'can't see the forest for the trees' thinker. Her book reads like a series of book reports (here is what I read and here's what I got out of it). Too often her work becomes a tedious recitation of factual historical events and summations of ancient writings without any raison d'être. Rather, it seems, she has an obsession for completeness (demonstrated in other works of hers such as `A History of God'.) Finally, a pet peeve: Armstrong has the annoying habit of using `chic' words drawn from the subject culture, such as nibbana (nirvana), ahimsa (harmlessness) and li (tradition). There are many of these. She defines them once and then expects the reader to remember them all.

As a research earth scientist I find myself wondering if human interactions with the changing global climate of the time may have contributed to this great global revolution. Psychologists may wonder if this was a result of the natural evolution of human self-awareness as we came to recognize our mind as a useful tool. Armstrong peripherally mentions (in barely a few lines) such revolutions as the smelting of iron and the domestication of the horse as contributing factors to destabilization during these times. She was silent on my Silk Road thesis and the others. In the end, this book was not what I was hoping for.