Archive for December, 2008

Think Responsibly

December 26, 2008

  Balzac wrote: “Behind every great fortune lies a forgotten crime.”  Combine that thought with Buffet’s “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked” and you a great take of the current financial landscape.

  And while not quite completely systemic (thanks Mr. Buffet!) corruption and bad practice are, of course, rife.  The headlines have never before been filled with such a torrent of tales of Ponzi schemes, corruption, bribery, self delusion, and disingenuity.  Well maybe not never.  Paul Krugman and others have compared this state of affairs with the collapse of the gilded age.    

  The financial arrangements at the bottom of the housing bubble, while maybe not criminal, were disastrously hair brained.  Daughter traveled for a bit with several bankers from the UK who joked about financing their multi-continent peregrinations by means of liberal applications of their index fingers on the mortgage approval yes button.  Nothing easier to spend or risk than someone else’s money.

  Yet another case of “The Best and The Brightest” syndrome.  Just like intellectual war planning and the development of weapons of mass destruction undertaken by highly educated elites to which I’ve referred several times.  Another permutation of the Enlightenment conundrum.      

  This all brings to mind the last book of the letters of George Santayana that just came out.  His most famous words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” are not his only of interest.  “Where parties and governments are bad, as they are in most ages and countries, it makes practically no difference to a community, apart from its local ravages, whether its own army or its enemy’s is victorious in war.”  Will Durant wrote that “Santayana thinks that no people has ever won a war”

  Santayana was a materialist – he thought the universe was mechanistic with humans well understood and explained by behaviorists.  But it was a “buoyant” materialism in the words of Durant.  The life of the mind was important to him.  It is “man’s imitation of divinity”.

  “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests”.  “…feeling attracted to the Church, feeling its historic and moral authority, and yet seeing that its doctrine is not true – in its “humility restores man to his only dignity, the courage to live by grace.”*

  I’d be interested in hearing his thoughts now that we know that behaviorists didn’t get it right, that Thoreau’s Walden was richer and made much more sense than BF Skinner’s. How quantum physics and dark matter would inform his thinking.

  I’d enjoyed renewing this old acquaintance over the course of the last few days until I came across this: “Some races are obviously superior to others…”  Jeesh.  He died in 1952 so I’d also like to ask him what he’d thought of the ‘master race’.  He later wrote that: “Wisdom comes by disillusionment” so perhaps that’d be his answer.

  I will conclude with a passage from The Once And Future King by T.H. White with which I often relate: “Long ago I had my Merlyn to help.  He tried to teach me to think.  He knew he would have to leave in the end.  So he forced me to think for myself.  Don’t ever let anybody teach you to think, Lance.  It is the curse of the world.”

  Yup, the ultimate mixed blessing.

*From a review of the book by Robert Richardson in the 12/20 – 21 WSJ

Er, hadn’t thought about the milkman…

December 19, 2008


  Yet again, the Economist comes through. A bit in the December 4, 2008 edition basically sets forth how healthy, intelligent, and sexy I am. 

  I’ve long known that all the hot chicks can’t take their eyes off of me, but my wife and kids never believe it. I’m certain they won’t now disagree.  The thought of their chagrin is delicious beyond words.

  In a piece titled: “Balls and brains” we learn of recent research testing a thesis attempting to explain a newly discovered interrelationship between intelligence and health.  (As you will see, the thesis also tests political correctness).

  One view would hold that smart people, on average, make smart choices about such things as tobacco and exercise.  In other words, their intelligence would translate into good health. 

  In stark contrast however, some evolutionary biologists think that intelligence signals underlying genetic fitness and has thus forever been a source of attraction for potential mates.  (No bright woman would choose a dumb husband, right honey?*)

  Rosalind Arden of King’s College, London sought to test this idea through the analysis of semen.  Using samples from and interviews with 425 men she found that there is indeed a direct relationship between its quality**  and a standard measure of general intelligence called Spearman’s g.

  So sports fans, “The quality of a man’s sperm depends on how intelligent he is, and vice versa”. 

*This is the truth: Once asked why she agreed to marry me, my wife responded that she needed an encyclopedia.

**Comparative measures of concentration, count, and motility


December 12, 2008

 Several days ago I listened to the husband/wife team of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth discuss their book Baboon Metaphysics on NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Terry Gross is the interviewer nonpareil!)  It was a fascinating discussion of the incredibly complex fabric of baboon society. 

  The title was taken from words of Charles Darwin: “Origin of man now proved.  Metaphysic must flourish.  He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.”  Darwin therewith asserts a greater complexity to the mind than Locke’s (and later BF Skinner et al’s) tabla rasa.

  From the book: “Darwin disagreed – both with the conclusion that animals’ thoughts and behavior are entirely based on instinct and with the view that human thought and behavior are governed entirely by reason”.

  For example, brains scans of two day old humans show that they pay more attention to faces than other visual stimuli and focus more intently on speech than other auditory stimuli.  Had to have been in the recipe.

  On the program Ms. Gross played recordings of a variety of baboon vocalizations described as “grunts, screams, and wahoos”.  It was interesting to listen to several different ‘speakers’ in succession.  The voices are distinctly each their own. 

  The information transmitted by the grunts and other utterings is complex and structured.  There is a matriarchic hierarchy to baboon society which can be divined by careful observation of the patterns of the vocalizations. 

  To test their theory the researchers recorded the grunt of a higher ranking female followed by the scream of a subordinate and then played them back in reverse order.  The whole troop was dumbfounded.  Apparently there is no place for an uppity baboon.

  Another interesting aspect of their research was based scatological evidence.  Collecting poop was easier and less intrusive than drawing blood as a means to obtain and evaluate glucocorticoid levels which rise and fall with stress.  When a particular baboon falls victim to a predator those hormone levels rise in each member of the group, but more greatly the closer the relation.  Stress is also evidenced in the friendless.  And furthermore the hormone levels fell when estranged family members were observed to be reintegrated as apparent acts of compassion.

  From their research, Cheney and Seyfarth extrapolated two conclusions regarding baboon metaphysics, brains, and evolution.  “First, natural selection often creates brains that are highly specialized.  Arctic terns migrate each year from one end of the earth to another, ants navigate across the Sahara, bees dance to signal the location of food….Yet… there is no evidence that [they] are generally more intelligent than other species…. they are more like nature’s idiots savants…”

  Secondly that “The domain of expertise for baboons – and indeed all monkeys and apes – is social life”.  And it sure sounds like the grunts, screams, and wahoos hold it together.

  Which, uh, brings me to Robert Frost.  In the December 4 New York Review of Books an article about Frost shows that he too thought that: “the brute noises of our human throat…were all our meaning before words stole in”.

  In fact, his theory was that the essence of effective poetry is to be found in “sentence sounds”. * “It is everything in the sound of poetry; but not as inventor or creator – simply as summoner”.**

  The author of one of the reviewed books, Mark Richardson, “notes the Darwinian drift” of Frost’s thinking.  He also mentioned that Frost had been influenced by Herbert Spencer’s observation: “variations of voice are the physiological results of variations in feeling”. 

  My wife knows just what is going on (and what course of action to take) by noticing if I’m grunting, or screaming, or wahooing.  Heck, so did my dog.  She would hide whenever she heard me grab my tool belt.

  Baboons are very distant relatives.  We humans took the path less traveled by – left the jungle long ago.  Lived in caves for a while.  Learned how to emote in many different languages.  Still are social creatures.  Sure will be interesting to see how, having added nuance to our grunting and howling, our “sentence sounds” will evolve through keyboards, flat screens, and emoticons.

NB It dawned on me that I had hidden (well, lost) somewhere at home a recording of Robert Frost reading some of his own poetry.  Took me a while to find it.  Longer still (and a few grunts) to coax the turntable into cooperation.   Compelling to listen to his intonation of Fire and Ice.  And to remember Kennedy’s inauguration while listening to Frost read his The Gift Outright: 

The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.  She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright.
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward.
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

* In the 12/11 Economist Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney describes his own speech patterns as “Phonetic grunting”.

**cf “The repetitive pattern of his picking seems to procure the rasp of his voice like hot firing synapses do obsessive thought” in Freewheelin’ above: 6-6-08



Hair City

December 5, 2008

  I started taking all of my children rock-climbing at a very early age and have enjoyed the experiences more than I ever could have imagined.  Usually.  Upon a few occasions terror and/or minor injury was/were unwelcome companions.  Matter of fact I probably did visit both upon each repeatedly.  Has made me realize that child abuse is not as easy to define as I’d thought.  And that perhaps it is sometimes inflicted without intent.

  Early one morning many, many years ago son Andrew and I made our way to the base of a cliff overlooking the river.  As we hiked beneath its lush deciduous canopy that was yet spring green, Andrew gestured toward a broad soaring bird that we could only sporadically glimpse.

  “Look at the hawk!” he exclaimed.

  “Vulture” I corrected without really looking.

  Our goal was the Sentinel, a free standing pinnacle 120 feet tall on the river side and about half that on the other due to eons of rock fall and other organic detritus fallen from the top of the main wall thirty feet to the east.

  We first climbed the easy east face.  It is solid gray limestone with many large solution pockets, natural handholds, and fossils so that route finding is not a problem and the experience pleasant.  The fact that a discrete summit is gained makes it all the more fulfilling.

  Then in the fifth grade (I think) Andrew was strong and kinesthetically adept.  He could do the most pull ups in his class and had no problem with the tight-wire in our front yard.  Thus, it seemed to make sense to search for greater challenge.

  I remembered a climb on the west face that could be done in three pitches, had wide ledges, and great views out across the river which is over a mile wide there and dotted with islands and lots of boat traffic.  As I recalled, the climbing was all chimneys with a traverse across a wide flat ledge halfway up.  Perfect.

  At its base, I tied Andrew into a tree and began the first short pitch.  The chimney was much dirtier than I’d remembered – filthy actually.  I quickly reached the small ledge and set up a belay.

  Andrew was up in a flash ever excited and unconcerned about the dirt.  I tied him to the belay anchor and took the step right and up to begin the traverse into the main chimney.  Andrew was less than thrilled as I disappeared from view and his side of the banter grew a bit tremulous.

  Indeed, I did move more slowly than I’d anticipated.  The ledge was not wide, but rather narrow.  And difficult to protect.  If Andrew slipped, he would take quite a swing.  Oh well, I thought, I’ll get to the bolts at the base of the main chimney, bring him over, and then cruise to the top.

  Only there were no fixed anchors, the rock was rotten, and the chimney wasn’t as I’d remembered either.  It’s walls were sharp, jagged, friable and constricted to a bulge a few yards up making for tricky passage. 

  It even thought momentarily about spitting me out and thus unleash the ravages of gravity upon us both.  I corralled such thoughts and relegated them to the place the Dalai Lama sends thoughts of women.

  Andrew called several times after my slow progress wondering what every second does when the leader’s progress is slower than expected: what sort of terror might lie ahead.

  He made it across the traverse slowly calling up “Dad I’m scared”.

  “You’re doing fine Andrew” I croaked.  We both knew that the choices were few and that the difficulties, for him, had just begun.

   He started up the crack.  Up, down, up, down, up down.

   Shit.  How do you holler technical advice to a little guy you can’t see, who’s never heard the terms, and you know is fighting back fear so that he can please his dumb old man?  I gave him a bit of tension from time to time, but knew that a tight rope would not help him through the bulge.

  He came to it and began to wrestle with the crux.  A flake broke off and crashed loudly below sending a flock of starlings into the wind.  The air then filled with the sounds of utter and complete despair.  I felt like Judas.

  He did though surmount the difficulties and soon I watched his little hand slap the top of the block upon which I sat.  He clambered toward me and came into my arms.  After a bit he turned and took in the view.  Without looking at me, he asked if we had to go on.

  No way off but up.  “Soon we’ll be in the sun” I said.


  As it happened, the leading arc of the solar disc edged over the top just as I began the last pitch – cascading rays down upon us and illuminating the zillion motes of dust that theretofore had been invisible. We were like exhausted pilgrims in a nave.

  I reached the top quickly and Andrew followed smoothly with a surprising return of confidence – quiet though he did remain.  Upon the small summit platform, he sat serenely gazing toward the distant rolling hills.

  As I bent over the rappel anchors a broad shadow stroked the loose coils of rope, the surrounding rock, and my back.  I raised my eyes to watch Andrew track the winged dihedral floating just above our heads.

  We exchanged no words for many minutes until he said matter-of-factly “Dad, it is a hawk, a red tail”.

  As the raptor then rose effortlessly on a thermal up into the sun, its backlit tail feathers twitched in fine manipulation of pitch and roll and shone rust red.

   *NB As you can see below, many more adventures did ensue.  And thankfully yet another of my father’s aphorisms has held true (so far): “Son by the time you can take me on you won’t want to”…