Archive for May, 2008

A Wonderful Bird Is The Pelican

May 30, 2008

  This is the time of year when white pelicans rest here in SE Iowa on their way north from winter break to their summer breeding grounds.  They are one of this universe’s many paradoxes because while they are ungainly up close, they are preternaturally elegant in flight.

  Regarding the proximate view, many will be familiar with this short poem by Dixon Merritt:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his belly can,
He can take in his beak,
Enough food for a week,
But I’m damned to see how the hell he can!

  The brown pelicans look very similar to the white in silhouette, but differ in plumage, behavior, and range.  The brown are frequently seen in small groups coasting smoothly over a southern shore.  Spotting a fishy morsel they’ll fold their wings (looking like a hipped umbrella) and dive into the sea.

  The white don’t dive, but oh do they soar.  Individuals or small groups rise on thermals so high and with such a complete lack of apparent effort that they resemble lower case ‘t’s floating at the outer ranges of one’s field of vision.  Larger groups closer to the ground form slowly pulsing or undulating chevrons.     

  Squadrons sometimes slowly describe circles in the sky suddenly changing from black to white and back depending upon their aspect to the sun. Large groups form gently rotating cylinders suspended in the air which bring to mind a friendly tornado in very slow motion.  

  I have no recollection of having ever seen them during my youth.  Thus, every spring as they pass through these parts I have to re-convince myself that their visit is no freak of nature.

  Reminds me of a passage in Robert Coles’ Spiritual Life of Children.  The Harvard psychiatrist interviewed children of widely diverse religious and secular backgrounds for insights into their inner lives and world views.  My favorite bit is of his time with an eight year old Hopi girl sitting outside her spare home high on a mesa. 

  As they talked, she noticed a pair of hawks soaring high above.  Then silent, she followed their graceful flight until the raptors were out of sight and then said: “I guess they’ll find something to eat.  I wish they were just going on a ride and not really hungry.  I love when they glide, then stop, flap their wings, and continue gliding.”

    The conversation then resumed for a time when of a sudden she stopped talking and “Her head turned about forty-five degrees to the left, she looked up – the hawks had returned.  How had she known?”

  Coles concludes:  “Some young people go through intense visionary moments… These are times when a mix of psychological surrender and philosophical transcendence offers the nearest thing to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” I can expect to see”.

  Do you recall having had such a moment at the ripe old age of eight?  Or later?  How likely can one be for those continuously perched in front of any sort of tube?  Is there a cerebral analogue to Fast Food Nation and obesity?  Remote Control Nation and, like, uh, uh, say what??

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Feed Your Head

May 23, 2008

  Picasso once said that “Computers are useless – they can only give you answers”.  True, they have enabled incredible productivity and played a large role in tremendous economic expansion.  But Bill Gates would still be a geek without game (or a college degree) if he hadn’t asked:  Software or hardware?  Steve Jobs would still be a hippie if he hadn’t wondered “are these things just for nerds?”.

  Staring into one’s screen, it is now awfully easy to be drawn mindlessly along. And spew out report after report without getting ‘out of the box’.  You come up with the same garbage you would have without a computer – just faster or more frequently.

  America’s first billionaire, shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig, thought about that and asked himself: “paperless office?”.  He didn’t buy it and developed a massive project in Brazil to produce paper on a theretofore unheard of scale.  He foresaw the reams you’ve “borrowed” from your office to feed the machine at home.

  Artificial intelligence has a long way to go. It has no counterpart to the older parts of our brain – those controlling respiration, fight or flight, and lust for example.  That neat stuff complete with its incredible cortical wrapper make quite the cosmic organ.

  A tool kit comprised of only 1s and 0s, or circles and rectilinearity will be no help in discerning between cheese and mold or making lemonade from lemons or evaluating risk or associating truth and beauty.  Or painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (Or being a misogynist for that matter I quess.)

  Gonna have to keep on thinkin’ – daydreaming at the very least…

Monkey See…

May 16, 2008

  In the May 12, 2008 issue of the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell (author of bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink) has an interesting article about the simultaneous spontaneous generation of scientific insights.  We associate the invention of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell and evolution with Darwin.  But an Elisha Gray filed a patent for his version of the telephone on the same day as Graham.  The two had never met.  Alfred Russel Wallace developed a theory of evolution without any knowledge of Darwin or the Beagle.  Turns out that the “phenomenon of simultaneous discovery [is] extremely common.”  The other examples he goes on to cite amaze.

  The essay reminded me of French Jesuit Philosopher Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and the monkeys.  In the 1950s scientists on the island of Koshima gave food treats to its simian inhabitants.  Treats were much appreciated, but problematic to eat because dirt would stick to them.   After a while, one monkey figured out how to rinse and clean the potato bits in water and others soon learned by observation.  Incredible thing was that after a critical mass figured out the trick, all of a sudden they all did.  All.  Even those on nearby islands.

    Teilhard believed that all things were on a path of increasing complexity and convergence. First monkeys get on the same wavelength and then cogito ergo sum.  “For the observers of the Future, the greatest event will be the sudden appearance of a collective humane conscience and a human work to make.”

  Although he got sideways with the church, Teilhard believed that the nature of our universe was characterized by orthogenesis.  That evolution and its direction are purposeful.  “Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness…evolution is nothing but matter become conscious of itself.”

  Teilhard wove together all aspects of his vast body of knowledge to describe an ever increasing interconnected universe.  “The powers that we have released, could not possibly be absorbed by the narrow system of individual or national units which the architects of human Earth have hitherto used.  The age of nations has passed.  Now unless we wish to perish we must shake off our old prejudices and build the Earth”.

  “… these perspectives will appear absurd to those who don’t see that life is, from its origins, groping, adventurous, and dangerous.  But these perspectives will grow, like an irresistible idea on the horizon of new generations.” 

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    Interesting to note that Teilhard was, at least in part, launched on his quest for understanding by the horrors of WWI: “…the war was a meeting…with the Absolute.”  (Remember the Razor’s Edge?)

Please Don’t Let My Wife See This

May 9, 2008

  Dandelions are beautiful.  If it was only with effort that they could be seen, like edelweiss in high alpine meadows, there’d be songs about them and they’d be the national flower of someplace.

  The yellow tuft is a glorious early bit of spring and offers an earnest greeting to those receptive to it.  What kind of a black heart does not smile at the sight after a long and cold winter?

  Dense green homogeneity as the suburban standard is but the latest installment of our tribe’s misguided quest for control.  The “Enlightenment” as manifest in the gardens of Versailles has now devolved into the verdant compulsion of Middle America.

  With a lot of work and fertilizer,   bluegrass, fescue, and rye can be made to sit still and stay from May through September.  Nice carpet of green in the foreground for dogs and kids to stay off of.

  Dandelions show up on their own early and often.  They need no care and establish themselves quite tenaciously. Their taproot makes one wonder how the description “grass roots” came not to mean weak or ephemeral. The obvious part of their life cycle is compressed and its end even more bothersome to the fastidious. 

  But have you ever (since you were a kid?) closely examined one of those white spheres (“clocks”) of a mature flower head?  Then blown on one?  It’s an incredible effusion of joy.  A transmigration.  It fills me with the same sort of wonder as a gaze into the sea or a star lit night.

  Then look closely at one of the tiny fruits suspended from its parachute.  They float along swaying gently to-and-fro until their path is blocked, the fruit separates from its chute, and the whole thing begins again.  Sometimes if a dispersal is blocked before it has a chance to travel far and spread out, the parachutes are shook free of their loads and coalesce into something just this side of the emperor’s new clothes.

  Product of evolution, but a miracle all the same.

  The evolution of the name parallels the evolution of its place in our consciousness.  Early on in French it was called “dent de lion” or tooth of a lion for the shape of its leaves – which can be used in a salad or made into soup.  In modern French it is a “pissenlit” meaning, uh, urinate in bed.  This is due to the diuretic nature of the aforementioned courses of a meal. 

  That’s what we get for leaving the garden. 

  Dang it Eve – you mow.

Better Take Off Your Shoes And Socks

May 2, 2008

  It has long been posited that the fabric of our universe can elegantly be described mathematically.  I’ve always sort of bought this intellectually, but without a gut level embrace because of all the, well, numbers.  All of those sliding blackboards in superposition – covered with chalk numbers, parentheses, and strange symbols – seem hopelessly unintelligible.

  Fortunately (for my daydreaming), recent research in neuroscience has provided another point of entry.  In the March 3, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, Jim Holt wrote about “Numbers Guy” Stanislas Dehaene. 

  “Over the decades, evidence concerning cognitive deficits in brain damaged patients has accumulated, and researchers have concluded that we have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general… In Dehaene’s view, we are all born with an evolutionarily ancient mathematical instinct… [and so are salamanders, pigeons, raccoons, dolphins, parrots, and monkeys] The number area lies deep within a fold in the parietal lobe called the intraparietal sulcus.”*

  “Our number sense endows us with a crude feel for addition … But multiplication is another matter.  It is an ‘unnatural practice’… Give a calculator to a five-year-old, and you will teach him how to make friends with numbers instead of despising them…”  Tell me if this last bit doesn’t ring true.

  OK, if time-space is the macro and one’s brain micro what are examples in between? Or is there a disconnect like between quantum physics and the theory of relativity? One occurred to me while reading about a concept known as the Golden Section.  It is the proportion resulting from the division of a straight line into two parts so that the ratio of the whole to the larger is the same as that of the larger to the smaller: 1: (√5+1)2. 

  Gwyn Headley writes: “The inexplicably satisfying proportions of the Golden Section have been appreciated since before Euclid”.   Google the term and you will find it neatly describing stuff ranging from the Pyramids at Giza to the Parthenon to Leonardo’s Annunciation in the Uffizi, to an endless array of elements of modern design.

  Furthermore, the closely related Fibonacci sequence can be used to describe such disparate things as the elegant spiral of the shell of the Nautilus to a smooth golf swing.

  The more this connectedness sinks in, the more I’m nearly overtaken by, well, The Marvelous.

  Holy dogs, if I had been on this scent earlier I would have made Mr. Gates wish he’d finished Harvard.  But shoot, now I know my attention will soon drift. 

*  Interesting thing here is that Holt goes on to say that “Brain imaging, for all the sophistication of its technology, yields a fairly crude picture of what’s going on inside the skull, and the same spot in the brain might light up for two tasks even though different neurons are involved. Quoting Dehaene: Some people believe that psychology is just being replaced by brain imaging, but I don’t think that’s the case at all”. 

  There are physicists and other thinkers who use this fact to hold that while consciousness may be present in a brain, it is not a product of it.  See, I’m getting off track.  More later.