Archive for May, 2009

Rain

May 29, 2009

 

  Approximately 70% of the earth’s surface is water.  Our bodies are about 60% water.  Brains 70%.  Blood 80%.  H20 is us.  Why is it then that many if not most of us consider a rainy day gloomy?

  Truth be told, most of my customers work outside and thus (this is another thing not to tell my wife and kids) I prefer that it rains on weekends.  (Added benefit: my dandelions and ground ivy don’t get thirsty and I don’t have to disturb them…) 

  Interestingly, raindrops do not form in the familiar teardrop shape.  Shape depends on size.  Small ones are nearly spherical.  Medium drops are flat on the bottom.  As they fall, large ones become concave on the bottom like a mushroom cap.

  Obviously, gardens and crops need rain to grow.  Farm belts – breadbasket areas are used to receiving amounts adequate and appropriate for cultivation.  Annual variations can cause moderate to disastrous problems.  Wars have been fought over water.  It is predicted that related disputes will only increase with the growth of the planet’s population and the turbulence in our climate.

  Inhabitants of arid regions probably prize the resource most highly as evidenced by the following two cultural examples.  The movie Chinatown was about the political machinations behind the irrigation of the San Joaquin Valley in California.  The currency in Botswana is called “pula” which is the Setswana word for rain.

  Not surprisingly then, one who could call forth a deluge was considered to have special powers long before we took up the plow and hoe.  Prehistorically, a rainmaker was a shaman or medicine man who through ritual and/or incantation was thought to be able to make the heavens weep.  More lately it’s more like a man, a plane, and silver iodide.  (Or pollutants – in urban areas rainfall is 20%+ more likely on Saturdays than Mondays)

  Metaphorically, it is also a positive term.  In the business world a rainmaker is one with a particular facility to recognize incipient financial opportunity, instinctually know how best to fertilize it, and finally to coax out liquidity in torrents.  In the movie “Rainmaker” Dustin Hoffman plays a savant who, possessed of a special mathematical aptitude, was enable to “count cards” and make his brother, played by Tom Cruise, a lot of money in Vegas.

  My kids always yawn when I remark about how great it smells as rain finally comes at the end of a long dry spell.  It is great isn’t it?  The scent is caused by the fact that clay soils and rocks absorb and accumulate an oil produced by some plants, petrichor (means blood of the gods), which is released by contact with moisture.

  I love rainy days.  All sorts.  To be in the lightest of rains is like walking in a cloud.  Standing still you don’t notice or hear the fall of drops, but move forward and you begin to push through a curtain of mist.

  In a hard rain, it’s neat to run down along the river by the large arrangement of water lilies near my home.  Before dawn for the best effect.  Even though drenched and being sharply pelted, one’s attention is drawn inexorably forward toward the incredibly resonant sound up which is newly mysterious and intriguing every time.  

  As you approach, you naturally begin to parse the theretofore blended sounds of rain on water and on the uplifted broad thick leaves.  Close by, the emerging new sound becomes almost ominous until alongside they’re separate. Oh ya wow.  There’s a moment of perfect antiphony just before they begin to blend together again as you move on by.

  Torrential thunderous downpours let you know you’re alive by the fear they strike.  (I love that they’re called “tormentas” in Spanish. Perfect!)  The level of instilled terror is directly related to the precarity of one’s position.  Top of a mountain or middle of the ocean will be found to be pretty scary in a big storm.  Basement of NORAD in the mountain in Colorado less so.

  Lighteningless rain sounds wonderful under a thin roof or in a tent.  Pull up the covers and relax.  Can’t do anything outside anyway.  Once, at scout camp, I was laying upon my back on cot under a simple canvas fly in a hard rain.  It was late afternoon and nearly lulled to sleep I turned over to watch mother mouse drag five fuzzie young pups out of a puddle to safety beneath me.  I had forgotten about the rescue until several years ago I saw them again dry, older, and more accomplished singing “Blue Moon” and “That’s Amore” as the Chorus in the movie Babe…  (Another unbelievably great flic)

  Before he died, my brother (who took the above short clip about three months before his death) gave my kids a rain stick.  You know, those things that when up-ended imitate the sound of rain on a thin roof with great virtuosity.  Thought to have originated in Chile they are made out of dried cacti with the thorns removed and then forced back in.  They are neat and never cease to amaze this simple mind.  Here’s what Seamus Heaney has to say: 

The Rain Stick 

Up-end the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for.  In a cactus stalk
 
Downpour, sluice-rash, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through.  You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly
 
And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling.  And now here comes
a sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,
 
Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again.  What happens next
 
Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand time before.
Who care if all the music that transpires
 
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.  Listen now again.

Carpe Diem? Huh? And Then What?

May 22, 2009

Andrew grad Franklin field 09 

  Carpe Diem seems like the most natural and obvious of exhortations to shout at a graduation.  Seize the day.  Certainly, commencement exercises must constitute a major point of transition (fulcrum hopefully) for most participants.  But “hurry up and get on with your life” is probably not the best advice for a young broadly educated mind.

  Graduation ceremonies should always be powerful experiences for all attendees and the aforementioned such was no exception.  As the students and faculty began to file in the orchestra began to play and the trickle soon became a swarm.  I first thought back to graduations past until I noticed that tears had welled up in the eyes of both sisters as brother came into view.  Wife choked a bit, and well, me to.

   Made me think of brain science and what it can and cannot explain.  We have what have been called mirror neurons.  A set of neurons fires when you do something.  Mirror neurons fire when you observe somebody do that thing.  Researcher V.S. Ramachandran calls them “Ghandi” neurons because “they’re dissolving the barriers between you and me”.*

  That’s neat and interesting, but incomplete.  Other researchers have shown that phenomena related to consciousness can be observed, measured etc, but not consciousness itself.  Some think it a matter of time till it is seen how thoughts emerge from the brain, but none do now.

    As I’ve said above, while it may well be understood one day, I do not believe it will be found to be a sum of the parts sort of thing.  Stuart Kauffman again: “Whatever its source, consciousness in emergent and a real feature of the universe…. These phenomena, then, appear to be partially beyond natural law itself.”

  It is much easier for me to consider tenderness amongst siblings with that observation in mind than, say, mirror neurons.  We are more than the sum of the parts.

  While in Philadelphia I saw one of the two of Galileo’s telescopes known to be still in existence.  Fascinating to look at and think about.  They got him into trouble.  Not so much for debunking heliocentrism as for challenging the then prevalent western world view that spirituality was the only source of knowledge.    

  In her remarks the wonderfully enthusiastic Penn President Amy Gutman told those in cap and gown that their toughest challenge would be to find: “What matters most to me?”.  Not an easy question for most to answer, but indeed perhaps the most important.  I’d add that it is probably be just as important to learn to live in that question.  If you carpe diem with questions answers will follow.

Andrew grad Myerson 09

   That’s what Galileo did.  “It [the earth, not the sun] moves” he told the Pope and was placed under house arrest for blasphemy. He continued wide ranging research for the next ten years until his death investigating the speed of light and the nature of tides among other things.  Very significantly,  he developed the basic principle of relativity.

   Einstein wrote: “Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.  Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality.  Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics – indeed of modern science altogether”.

  Or as Uncle Ed helped translate from another tradition: “Whatever you see is a reflection of your own mind.  The essence of mind has, from the very beginning, has been free of conceptual limitations.  Having recognized this truth, free your mind from grasping at phenomena and clinging to thought…”**

Andrew Board spring 09

*New Yorker May 11, 2009: Profiles

**Path of the Bodhisattva, Vimala Publishing

***Hint: Above image is not through a telescope, has not really yet been seen in 3D, but is indeed way out there and has not been seen before.

My Name Is Nobody

May 15, 2009

Road trip. Mind can’t help but wander. Remember in college I took a seminar entitled “Literature of the Trip”. Started with Odysseus. Modern era was ushered in by Kerouac and On The Road which was an exploration of the newly unlimited freedoms of the American Dream. Here in the US, we emerged from WWII with comparatively unscathed success and with the west also won continental ontological parameters disappeared and a search for new meaning began.

It was the ‘Beats’ who led the quest. I’d long thought that the term related to a musical concept. However, upon reading background notes to Kerouac’s second book I learned otherwise. First it was a term employed to relate a sort of “exalted exhaustion” and then in reference to a Catholic vision of beatitude. Evolution of etymology is interesting, isn’t it?

Jung wrote that “The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality”. The collective norm doesn’t point the way ahead. It obviously aggressively reinforces the status quo. Or worse, to a banal evil. Kerouac was the perfect sort of person to break new ground. Among other factors attenuating any rootedness was the fact that he was French Canadian and English was his second language.

Makes me think of the current Hispanic diaspora. To me it’s heroic. Operatic even. The struggle of those forging north, setting out for the territory ahead, Tom Joad like is only a current example of an innate capacity for adventure that lies dormant in a dominant culture. At least in 3D. I say more power to them. Poetic justice for us.

Kerouac and other artists of his time didn’t end well for the most part. Forward scouts often end up carrion by some means or other. Boredom at the end of the journey often led to substance abuse, suicide etc. After their return George Rogers Clark went on to great things, but Merriwether Lewis self destructed…

This here road trip is for a graduation and the ensuing second stage in the diaspora of our family. Some of the same stuff applies. Hunger, a new skill set, and a sense of adventure seem, in this case, to point over the western horizon.

Grandma’s along for this trip. She’s made it to eighty-one without any stripped gears even though having traversed some difficult terrain and uncivilized territory. Perhaps she will offer up her perspective on how to find one’s way through unfamiliar territory.

Dog Is My Co-Pilot

May 8, 2009

sauger mirror

Dogs aren’t impressed by large vocabularies or fancy philosophizing.  They’re experts on nonverbal communication.  They catalyze mindfulness of the way things are and prevent one from being forever lost in thought.  They present the universe in a canine microcosm to young children with whom they form special bonds.

Once, years ago, I was reading one of the Babysitters Club series to our oldest child.  Kristy and the Snobs. Met the family dog Louie early on and was engrossed in the narrative well enough that I didn’t pick up on the clue when Louie was limping and Kristy said “We’ll tell Mom, but it’s probably nothing” on page 7.

Next evening I read that “… last night he walked right into a table when he was aiming for me” and still didn’t get it.  But by chapter 12 “Louie was in bad shape” and I can remember thinking that “this is a kid’s book, this can’t be happening”.

It is often said and written that children’s books are the most difficult to write and that kids make for the most demanding of audiences.  Their books are comprised of sparse spare prose and a straightforward storyline.

More importantly, you can’t bullshit a kid.  One juvenile non-sequitur and it’s over, you’ve lost them.  They’ll yawn and/or interrupt and interest completely lost, you’ll have to start something new next time.

Not coincidentally, in Children’s Experience with Death author Rose Zeligs maintains that “You cannot ever fool a child.  He is closer to the deep inborn collective unconscious and senses any default in … dallying with the truth.  No matter what the seriousness and shock the truth may invoke, the child must not lose trust in those who attempt to serve him, be they parents or professionals…”

The momentum of this particular story soon became relentless and I started to worry how I was going to handle it.  It was not easy.  Louie was old.  He had accidents of all sorts.  Poor eyesight combined with a bit of confusion led to his tumbling down the basement stairs.

Mom took Louie to the vet who said that he “was deteriorating rapidly (translated into regular speech that meant ‘getting worse fast’)”.  Chapter 12 ended with an ominous recommendation by Dr. Smith.

Not far into chapter 13:

“The receptionist called Mom’s name then, and she stood up.  David Michael and I gave Louie last pats and kisses, and then Mom disappeared down the little hallway.  When she came back a few minutes later, her arms were empty…”

Child psychologist Zeligs also wrote that: “Being closer to the earth and sky [the rural child] learns to accept death as part of life’s rhythms”.  Most children no longer live on farms and not all have pets.  The arts can help touch the earth.  Scientist Stuart Kauffman (who I introduced in my last post) wrote that Shakespeare is just as important as Einstein. I quite agree.

We had zillions of those Babysitter Club books around the house.  They all look the same and their titles are almost interchangeable. Unbelievably, perhaps, even so – two more times did I find myself lying in bed with a child and coming across Louie unprepared.  It never got easier.

I can’t wait to get home and pat our dog.  He’s twelve.

* FYI God Is My Co-Pilot is an autobiographical account by Col. Robert L. Scott of a life of flying in general and at the controls of a fighter over China in WWII.  It was a huge best seller when published in 1956, and is a great tale of ambition, determination, and bravery.  However, it has more recently been criticized for ethnic insensitivity.  “Japs”, “Huns”, “Darkies”, etc.

Non-Ergodic

May 1, 2009

mandelbrot

Read that word in an absolutely fascinating excerpt from the new book Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman.  Didn’t know what it meant either and it wasn’t in my dictionary.  Tried to look it up in my digital OED but it locked up.

Courtesy of Google found that non-ergodic refers to a set or group or system, the universe say, that is incomprehensible by study of a single aspect or earlier state.  Ever since the Big Bang, the universe has been expanding and evolving.  One could not extrapolate its current state based upon its early arrangement any more than examination of a slice now would tell us much about the whole a billion years hence.

Kauffman is an atheist who wants to understand the nature of the universe.  At its earliest why did the atoms combine as they did?  Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us a lot about our biosphere, but what about before there was anything to evolve? How did the first reproducing cell form?

Framing the question with an example, he tells us that there are twenty different amino acids and 20 to the power of 200 possible combinations thereof to make a length 200 protein.  It would have taken ten to the power of thirty-nine times the age of our universe to make each of them once. Why did the ones that formed come into being and not any of the other possible combinations?

Kauffman began his quest with genes.  He earned his MD at UCSF and undertook research into genetic expression.  He found that they exist “on the edge of chaos” and that “the proper functioning of an organism depends upon its self organization and regulation”.  A trait does not come fully formed from a single gene, but from their interaction.  “Health is just a moment of stability in a very uncertain cellular world.”

The principles of self-organization found in complexity theory play an important creative role in the evolution of the universe, our biosphere, our genome, and our existence. It describes the behavior of systems that are sensitive to initial conditions, but evolve unpredictably over time.

The above Mandlebrot fractal is an example of a complicated structure arising from a simple set of points, a formula, and repeated iterations.  A slight difference in the points and formula would have led to significantly different evolution.  (cf the butterfly effect)

“Thus a radical and I will say, partially lawless creativity enters the universe.  The radical implication is that we live in an emergent universe in which ceaseless unforeseeable creativity arises and surrounds us.  And since we can neither prestate, let alone predict all that will happen, reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives forward.  This emergent universe, the ceaseless creativity in this universe, is the bedrock of the sacred that I believe we must reinvent.”

“What about all the aspects of the universe we hold sacred – agency, meaning, values, purpose, all life and the planet?…One response is that if the natural world has no room for these things, and yet we are unshakably convinced of their reality, then they must be outside of nature – supernatural…”

“The ground of our existence, then is not to be found in physics alone, but also in the partially lawless becoming of the biosphere, econosphere, culture that we self-consistenly co-construct.”

A universe not understandable by reductionism? Nor by a grand patron in robe and slippers?  Kauffman gives us a radical appreciation of an unpredictable creativity that underpins and leavens our cosmos.

*Interesting (to me anyway) Kauffman was president (in 1961) of the same mountaineering club as was I (1974).  Makes me wonder anew about the field of embodied cognition to which I referred  in “Let’s Dance” 1/24/08 below.  Kinesthetics, adventure, and cerebration  can combine to powerful effect.

**Dang if he didn’t figure out how to get paid to sit around staring off into space while I still need my day job.   Teaching at Harvard this spring,  he heads the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary.