10 September 2011


The 19th of September is the third anniversary of the day when I began making daily entries in my metaphysics log book. I am almost all the way through my third notebook. I use the spiral bound college rule 150 sheets 9.5 inch X 6 inch style. On the pages of these notebooks I record:
  • every meditation
  • every prayer
  • every ceremony
  • every reading in the topics of metaphysics
  • every tarot card spread
  • a small number of other occasional related items
Almost. I am not obsessive about it. It is probably closer to 90% of my relevant activity that actually ends up getting written down.

This was my the-third-time-is-a-charm try at maintaining a diary of this sort. The first time was shortly after I read Aleister Crowley's Book 4 in 1997 or so where he lays out his system of metaphysics and his slogan "the method of science and the subject of religion". His prescription was identical to those of my freshman chemistry and physics lab teachers who said "if it isn't written down, it didn't happen". If I recall I got about a week into this project back in 1997 before my attention span fizzled out.

Then, I tried again in around 2005. This time I did not get past two pages. I know this for a fact as in 2009 I started up again with the same notebook and tore out the first two sheets so that now it only has 148 sheets in it. Now I am on page 143 of the third notebook so in this time I have steadily filled up 441 pages in 1086 days or around 2 pages every 5 days with my records of meditations, prayers, &c.

One thing has been remarkably constant since even before 1997. My central meditation activity is autogenic training, which I first discovered in the Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Davis, Eshelman, and McKay (an earlier edition of this book.) It is gratifying to me to look at the Amazon page and see that it has now has 68 five-star reviews. Back in 1997 I had some stress related medical problems and I went to a physician who gave me a photocopy of their chapter 5 and a little hand held thermometer. He told me after a few weeks the temperature measured between my thumb and forefinger would increase a couple degrees and that is how I could be sure the method was working. I went home from the doctor and opened up my copy of Davis and Eshelman and Mckay's book and confirmed my suspicion that he was telling me something I already knew. I had already experimented with the exact prescribed autogenic training technique, among other things in that book. After my first session my fingertip temperature climbed three degrees which was way faster than a few weeks so I skipped going back to that doctor ever again, and have continued to use this method as one of my main meditations.

One thing has changed drastically since the early days of my metaphysics activities. My gateway was Crowley, who I discovered via Jimmy Page. When I was a teenager and a rock music fan my nearly favorite band was Led Zeppelin, just like almost everybody else I knew. One day I heard a fascinating bit of gossip from the fellow in my peer group who seemed to know the most rock arcana and this was that Led Zeppelin was in hiatus because Plant and Page were fighting over Page's occult occupations. Plant had been in a nasty car accident and his young son had died from some freak medical ailment and he thought that Page was bringing bad juju upon the band. I went to the library and looked through every Page mention I could find until I found an article in Rolling Stone that linked him up with the Crowley character who I had never heard of before.

The Crowley books had a big influence upon me. In looking back I think it was the almost endless esoteric data and the stimulus it had on my imagination. It has been a long time since I have taken Crowley seriously, but it did attract me to activity which has been fun and interesting and rewarding that I might not have otherwise found any interest in. A couple years ago I was meeting with an esoteric group near here and the leader asked me how I first became interested. I told her it started with Led Zeppelin and Aleister Crowley and when I first began I wanted to do things like shoot lightning bolts out of my fingertips but I have calmed down a lot since then. That was a bit of an exaggeration but they all seemed to enjoy hearing that.

Back to the notebooks. I have (so far) three years of records for my own method of science on the subject of religion. Much of it is useless. Some of it may be of great value. I haven't spent much time combing through it yet. One thing I did a few months ago was count every single tarot card I have ever drawn in a spread. The one trump I have drawn almost twice as much as any other is the Hierophant. I mentioned this once to a friend of mine and they replied, "of course you are going to draw the Hierophant more than any other."

That statement seemed to make a lot more sense to her than it does to me.

30 August 2011

Descartes was never a dog owner

Craig's Spring Branch Blog has been in hiatus for a couple months while I was occupied with other stuff.

I stumbled onto an amazing web page yesterday: anotherpanacea. It is the weblog of Joshua Miller, a philosophy teacher at George Washington University. I have only read a couple of the entries so far, but the one that amazed me was plucked out of the ether for me doing a google search:

How to get a philosophical education for free.

This is a compilation of the best of the online courses, podcasts and so on which the kind Mr. Miller promises us will give us a close approximation of what his students get in exchange for paying GWU 50 000 dollars a year. And I got right to work this morning listening to the first lecture of John Searle's UCBerkeley course Philosophy of Mind.

There are 32 lectures, each 80 minutes in length from Searle's spring 2010 version of Philosophy 132, Philosophy of Mind. The first lecture was mostly Descartes. I am already familiar with most of this material. As a matter of fact, I took a class from John Searle many years ago in which the first week was Descartes. Nevertheless I took three pages of dense notes and I learned a number of interesting things.

  • They still use blue books for exams at Cal!
  • There is at least one lecture hall that still uses chalkboards!
  • There is a clan labeled mysterians--what they do is they promote the idea that human consciousness is so complex that explaining it will never be accomplished.
  • Beyond monism, dualism there is at least one guy (Eccles) who has promoted trialism. (Beyond the mind and the body the third part of the trialism is the culture, a la' Minsky's Society of Minds.)
But the most interesting parts to me were actually a couple of answers to student questions:

Where does the subconscious go? In the mind or in the body?
  • For Descartes there is no such thing as a subconscious mind. Mind == conscious thoughts and that is it.
Do animals have minds?
  • Absolutely not for Descartes. Animals do not have conscious thoughts and are entirely mechanical contraptions. Clearly, Descartes was not a dog owner.
Also it was pretty cool to see that Searle seems to be carrying his age very well. He sounded quick and lively and I am pretty sure it would have been even more fun to sit there in the class than it was to listen to the audio file on my computer. It will be interesting to see if I can maintain my current enthusiasm for 31 * 80 = 2480 more minutes 41 more hours. At the moment I think it will be worth it.

18 April 2011

How do you react?

On my last metaphysics post I discussed almost all of my ritual activity for the Spring Equinox. I omitted one item which is complex enough that it may take up a post of its own. On the 21st of March I did a special tarot reading, for that and for the 77 following days. It was the first time I ever did a tarot reading using the whole deck.

Tarot is a useful tool, but I do not usually take it very far. I have only performed a handful of readings for other people in real life. And I am unsophisticated at it, and new enough at it, that on the eleventh of September 2001 I did not even know that this card was in my deck, although I had used it a few dozen times already at that point. One thing which I still have not done is figure out how many shuffles are required to randomize a 78 card tarot deck with two possible orientations for each card. For a 52 card playing deck we have peer reviewed work in Combinatorics which gives the number of shuffles needed: seven. When I shuffle a tarot deck I shuffle it 49 times, with an inversion for around half of those. This is a number I arrived at experimentally when I first bought the deck and it took that many shuffles to convince myself that the factory order had finally been obliterated. More often than not, when somebody asks me to perform a reading for them, they lose interest in the exercise before I finish shuffling.

On the 21st of March I performed my scrupulous 49-times shuffle, read the first ten cards per normal; I then wrote down the first ten and the following 68 for the purpose of a 78 day regimen of studying one card per day, using that card to reflect upon that day, and refine my one-liner representation of the card that I use for readings. Most of my interpretations are based upon Rachel Pollack's book, which has many flaws but which contains mostly great information.

For today, day number 29 in the series, the card is the five cups. My one-liner summary for this card is: "How do you react?" This comes from a man who has nothing to do with tarot that I know of--college football coach Nick Saban. I have written before about my fascination with sports talk radio, but this is an indication of how deep this fascination goes. I do not even like college athletics. There are thousands of professional football and basketball games televised yearly with the most-skilled athletes--far too many to watch it all. It never ceases to amaze me that people have any time at all to attend to college players. In spite of never watching college football, I listened to Nick Saban's radio show when he was coaching at Louisiana State, because he told the most fascinating stories. This is why I love sports talk radio--it has great stories.

I can recall verbatim one time Saban discussing his coaching philosophy and he said:

"Everybody gets hurt. Everybody gets sick. Everybody makes mistakes. It makes all the difference in the world between winning and losing, success and failure: how do you react?"

It stuck with me enough that I penciled it into my Pollack tarot book right below the five cups. It is fully consistent with Pollack's explanation of the card's meaning, and it is one of the better one-liners I have now for all of the cards in the deck.

13 April 2011

Hypnagogic and hypnopompic

Dreams have been covered here, and I really don't have much more to say about them. They can be fascinating, but I am not of the school that makes them a royal road to the unconscious. I am not sure the idea of an unconscious mind is very useful. In the current set of metaphors, I prefer the notion of reptilian brain functions to the unconscious mind. Most dream discussions are beastly dull.

One observation which seems trivial is relation between dream experience and waking mood. A pleasant dream experience is flying. Sometimes it is chaotic, tangled in high wires or crashes on landings; sometimes it is perfect, free and controlled and with beautiful vistas. In my experience, perfectly controlled beautiful vista flying dreams are strongly correlated with elevated mood for the following few hours of waking consciousness.

Another experience, again trivial, is love objects in dreams. Jung coined the term anima to describe an inner personality of the opposite sex; I prefer to describe the anima as a love-object type of woman. The attractive women who I do not recognize in my dreams are all of one physical type. My shorthand for this is: anima-woman. The real world equivalent to this would be that all of the public relationship figures for some prominent men seem to be of one physical type--all the Bill Clinton women (except for his wife) have the big salon hair and heavy makeup; all the Tiger Woods women have long straight blond hair, &c.

One time I participated in a Jungian T group where the group leader was nearly a perfect instance of my own anima-woman. Fortunately I had the sense not to mention this to her. I am fairly sure (probability~.7) she has heard that enough to be sick and tired of it, and more sure (probability~.9) that her response to such a comment would be akin to: "Ack! Stay away from me you creep."

This can be a little disturbing when a real-life person of little importance sneaks into my dream world in the anima-woman role. This happened to me recently. The woman is not unattractive, but I have not had any personal interaction with her. When she showed up in my dream the attraction was intense. This was not disturbing at all; to the contrary it was a pleasant dream. The disturbance came into the waking world when it took some effort to banish the anima-woman from repeatedly creeping into my conscious thought.

The kicker was the hypnopompic material that came right after, the stuff that came into my half-world and mostly conscious mind. I conceived what I thought to be a novel theory of clinical depression and treatment and a conversation with my doctor where I explained it all and enlightened him. It is simple enough to explain in a paragraph or two.

Human mood varies--we have good days and bad days. For the sake of discussion, evaluate all of human mood with one number, scale 1 to 10.

10: the first time you fell in love, winning the World Series, sex with a nine-thousand-dollar prostitute.
1: what would be the most painless and sure-fire way to commit suicide?

Natural fluctuation is between 3 and 8. If your mood is at 3 for too long an interval and too often, you complain to the doctor and he prescribes a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor, which solves the problem for a lot of people.

Here is where my hypnopompic theory and imagined discussion with my doctor comes in. I told him what the SSRI does is not just block off the lower state, but compresses the range from 4 to 7 and blocks out the potential for high states as well, which may not be a desired outcome at all. I used diagrams in my explanation, with graphs of mood versus time which resembled Neumann Functions. In my hynopompic state, this all made perfect sense and my diagrams were beautiful. When I got up I immediately made notes and drew graphs and it all made a lot less sense to me than it did in my hypnopompic state.

08 April 2011

What does not kill me makes me stronger I

"What does not kill me makes me stronger."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, #8, tr. R. Hollingdale.

I have a love and hate relationship with Nietzsche, and the hatred portion is neatly summarized by the above aphorism. Today is a milestone day on the calendar year. It happened to be the day when the heat in my apartment got high enough (88 degrees Fahrenheit at 4:00 P.M.) that I had to surrender and finally turn on my air conditioning for the first time this year. This isn't killing me but it is surely not making me stronger. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell had more of a hate and hater relationship toward Nietzsche. It is amusing to read his Nietzsche chapter in his History of Western Philosophy; over-educated British guys can display a knack for truly creative name-calling.

Before I get to the negative, first I will accentuate the positive. The best thing about the Nietzsche books is their style. The prose is light and easy to read fast and make sense out of. This is not to say that second and closer readings do not reveal deeper layers. They often do. The quip in my title is not an example of this.

His readings and interpretations of the ancients are great. Informative. Innovative. Almost every time he writes about the Greeks it stimulates me and I often wonder how he could come up with this stuff. Nietzsche represents an archetype--the archetype of the tortured genius struggling alone producing beautiful work that nobody appreciates. Those of us who have spent much time struggling alone to produce work which we considered worthy and few others appreciated might feel a personal connection to this character. I certainly did when I was younger. I was so under the spell of this archetype, that when I studied creative work systematically in the form of 's Creativity, I was surprised at his finding that for almost all top creators and innovators, their most important time is spent in discussion and consultation with fellow workers. This is certainly not how the process seemed to work for Friedrich Nietzsche, and this is not how the process has mostly worked for me.

Nietzsche is extraordinarily popular, and he gets people reading Philosophy who would otherwise be intimidated by the density of the typical work in the field. He is often the very first Philosopher that people read because of his accessibility. He is certainly the very first Philospher that I spent a long time reading. He is a gateway. My experience is that most of his readers have a diametrically opposite experience to that of Bertrand Russell--love and more love without dilution. This has made it very difficult for me develop my own reading with any discussion or consultation. Things go fine as long as I am positive and then I say something negative and my fellow readers usually draw the conclusion I am an idiot.

I remember one discussion I had on USENET long ago which I can no longer locate. I was writing about this idea I got out of Deleuze--that Nietzsche was approximately equal to all of the best parts of Sigmund Freud with none of the worst parts. This fellow I was discussing this with first went ballistic about how I didn't know what I was talking about. Then, right after that, he posted chapter and verses from Deleuze's book which were the exact thing I was drawing my memory from, and they said almost exactly what I was saying. That was really bizarre, but it was kind of typical of how my discussions of Nietzsche go with people who have also read a bunch of the books.

My main complaint about the Nietzsche books is this:I believe the man went mad before he stopped writing. It isn't like one day he was perfectly lucid and literate and writing, and then the next day he went mad and the writing stopped. I think the later books, like Twilight of the Idols, contain madman ravings. As a philosophical statement, "what does not kill me makes me stronger" seems vulgar to me.

There are precursors to this in the earlier work on the subject of modern (to him) Europe. He was living in a culture filled with human failing, as do we all. He does not seem to get that the wonderful classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were also quite full of human failing. I have more faith in progress than is evident in the Nietzsche work.

And now I have a segue so abrupt I must defer it to a part II which I will post in twenty days.

03 April 2011

The movie was not as good as the book

In my preparations for Easter I watched (almost all) three movie versions of the story:
King of Kings,
The Last Temptation of Christ,
and Passion of the Christ.
The comparison and contrast was fascinating, and after I looked up a few things which I found noteworthy.

The oldest of the three, King of Kings, is from 1961 and parts of it did not age well. The thing which sticks out the most is the sensibility of the movie; at no time while I was sitting there was I unaware that this was a presentation from 1960 Hollywood. The movie did not suck me into its false reality with suspension of my disbelief. The one thing which distinguishes it is the music. The score is by Miklos Rozsa, one of the best ever film score composers. I have this CD (not too bad) and in the liner notes they have comments by Rozsa. He did Ben Hur and King of Kings right after, and he comments that Ben Hur was the Jesus story without any of his speaking parts, and then Jesus' speaking parts are immediately picked up in King of Kings. King of Kings is, so to speak, one of the many supplemental discs for Ben Hur. The cover photograph on that CD illustrates one of my problems with the movie. It shows a still from the movie with King Herod and the queen and they are wearing really goofy costumes.

Omitting Ben Hur from my program may have been a blunder. I had always thought that Jesus was a minor character in this movie, but in looking at the program notes for the DVD they have a picture of the jacket from the original novel where it says in a plain English sub-title: a novel of The Christ. Easter isn't for a couple more weeks and so I may remedy this, but it is a very long movie. The thing I remember most from my last viewing is that Charlton Heston's abdomen closeups were as impressive as anything they have ever gotten out of Brad Pitt. That guy spent a lot of time in the gym.

The best of these three movies, for me, was The Last Temptation of Christ. No Rozsa score, but the Peter Gabriel score is not chopped liver. The thing which I really appreciated was the depth of seemingly all, even the most minor characters. The relationships between Judas and Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Jesus were all believable (for the two hours I was sitting there watching it) and very interesting. I do not know what Palestine in the zeroth century was really like, but the setting provided for this story was clearly like nothing I am familiar with from my everyday life. The contrast between this and the familiarity of King of Kings is large.

Then there is The Passion of the Christ. The beginning of the movie was great. They have the dialog in Aramaic with English sub-titles, which I thought was an interesting way to do it. I could not watch the movie to the end, however. When the Roman guards beat Jesus during his trial, it is just too gross. It is like those scenes at the end of Rocky where the beating is way more than a human could withstand, and still maintain conscious brain function. I watched Rocky all the way to the end, so I can stomach a lot. Passion is at least five times worse than that, perhaps much more. When the bloody gore got to the five Rockies level, I shut the DVD player off.

29 March 2011

Heard from passing renegades Geronimo is dead

On Monday March 21 I performed a ritual to celebrate the Spring Equinox and to invoke aspects of Mars into my living room. I used a recipe very similar to what I did for the three previous holidays, solstices and equinox. (Example here.)

The personality I chose to personify the energy of Mars was Jack LaLanne, the California fitness guru who recently passed on. This was a little different than the personalities I had chosen for the previous rituals, which were real people from my life who most closely personified the planetary / divine aspects. For Mars I had a perfect candidate person, but he is not so remote from my real life as the other three. This person is only twenty years older than I; he only lives a few hundred miles from me at this time; there is a chance I will be seeing him again on this earth, so my only connection to him is not in my own head. Instead of using his character for a ritual, it would probably be a better idea to get in touch with him and personally thank him for being such a positive influence on me. (Martin Seligman calls this a gratitude exercise and recommends it very highly as a mechanism for promoting good mental health.)

Before, I spoke metaphorically of invoking Mary Poppins, or invoking Abraham Lincoln. For this ritual I literally invoked Jack LaLanne. I used the ritual formula from Phil Hine's Prime Chaos.

Three parts:

In the first, the deeds of the figure are given, spoken in the third person. In the second, the qualities of the figure are given, spoken in the second person. In the third, the powers of the figure are given, spoken in the first person.

My ritual preparations began a few days ahead when I looked at the fourmilab sky chart and located where Mars is right now. It is between Venus and the Sun early in the morning. For four consecutive days I got outside before sunrise to look at Mars. For four consecutive days all I saw was complete cloud cover. At least I made the attempt. I did see an amazing "great moon" full moon on Friday night, so I had to make do with that.

This was only a small disappointment. Mars energy is abundant in my world right now, and I do not feel any need to get any kind of a special boost from the Universe. This is in direct contrast to my previous Jupiter and Venus and Saturn rituals, where I really could use a boost and I went all out. On the previous occasions I fasted all day until after the ritual right after sunset. Last Monday I ate three half meals instead of fasting. In other ways, this was a ritual that I invested far less effort into than the other three.

I read aloud the Teth / Strength / 19th pathworking from the Ciceros' book. This is based upon the three guys in the furnace and Daniel in the lion's den from the book of Daniel. It includes the Canticle of Praise, Daniel 3:26ff. I looked up the passage in the King James Bible and it ain't in there! This was new to me as I did not realize the canon-apocrypha-Protestant-Catholic dispute extended to inside the book of Daniel. I also have a Catholic bible and looked it up and it is right there where it was cited to be. This is the prayer the three guys in the furnace say when they are just hanging there, not burning. I have no idea why the Protestants crossed it out.

In addition to this, I also performed a few other assorted prayers and meditations. Prior to doing the Jack LaLanne part, I dressed in nothing but a pair of red running shorts and a rhodolite ring. I constructed a small altar with a candle, a drawing I made based upon the Mantegna Tarocchi Mercurio, and a drawing I made based upon the Coleman-Smith-Rider-Waite Strength card. I used Mercury because this seemed the best place to fold it in, and I don't have much interest in setting aside a ritual day for a planet which is normally obscured in my zip code by human emitted light. Before the invocation I played David Bowie "Heroes". And after the invocation I played Elton John "Indian Sunset", and then I played the whole Bowie CD and the whole Elton John CD. My living room was illuminated by the candle and a red light bulb.

Unlike for the other rituals, I can post the exact script:

"He is Francois Henri LaLanne, inventor of American fitness center industry, doer of record 1033 pushups in 23 minutes at age 42, KGO TV star, owner of honors too numerous to enumerate. You are Francois Henri LaLanne, first fitness superhero, zesty lover of life and joie de vivre, enthusiastic optimist. I am Jack LaLanne, strong and vigorous and appealing!"

24 March 2011

How To Treat Stage Fright

Prior to experiencing my "miracle" cure for my stage fright, I suffered a severe case of it for many years. Stage fright is a common phobia, and some surveys place public speaking up with snakes and spiders as amongst the most common fears anybody suffers. In the course of my struggles I looked in many places for the answer. I diligently studied what appears to remain the authoritative book covering the topic. In this post I am going to summarize the conventional prescriptions, and offer a novel treatment which I learned about while attending a T group.

The wikipedia page on stage fright as it looks on the 24th of March 2011 looks good to me. The experts say prepare and rehearse. This is so trivial it may be of no help. It seems obvious if you are standing up in front of a group of people unprepared you should be fearful.

The jumping jacks and the deep breathing they suggest are good enough I suppose for mild cases that are going to pass anyway and these are activities which can accelerate eventuality coming to be. I actually tried all this stuff and found it to be useless.

They have a pill for it! I had read this in the New York Times a few years ago, but I was surprised to see all the documentation. Beta blockers will suppress the symptoms of social phobia so you can take the pill before you go on stage and it will all be a little easier. Apparently the drugs they were doing in the Last Waltz are just about the worst thing you can take for stage fright.

The trick I learned in my T group is this: shiver. Just relax your shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and give yourself a good long shiver. This is our most natural physical response to the emotional sense of fear and resisting it apparently makes it worse. If you give into the impulse and let yourself shiver as much as you feel like or even force yourself to shiver a little bit more than you feel like, this will disempower the hold your fear holds over you. The T group leader offered it as part of a litany:

"if you are sad, cry; if you are angry, shout; if you are happy, laugh; if you are afraid, shiver."

Sounds a little bit Zen and I would advise counting to ten before shouting when angry, but otherwise I think it works pretty good. My own experience with shivering before going onstage is that this is the only remedy I have ever found helpful for my own (previously) severe stage fright.

19 March 2011

Morris and Kuhn and Wittgentsein

From 6 March to 10 March, Errol Morris (documentary film director of Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, and others) published a five part sequence on the New York Times opinionator blog about Thomas Kuhn and many related topics. (Link.) It sucked up my attention for a good couple of hours and got me to thinking about many problems which may not be solvable.

The biggest issue is an ideal which is often termed absolute knowledge, but which most of us amateur philosophers just call: Reality. Kuhn famously wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that we ought to be skeptical whether any such thing will ever exist. The most relevant quotation:

"Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?" (p 170 in the second editition, U. Chicago Press, 1970).

Since I am only an amateur philosopher about 25% of the time, and my day job is as a physicist, it is impossible for me to run counter to the norms of my entire tribe and not say this question is ridiculous. Of course it helps. That is exactly what we do. We have a lot of things wrong; but it is less and less over time. Progress is unequivocal and together we proceed toward an ultimate "one, full, objective true account of nature" like an asymptote approaches its bounding line.

Kuhn is not here to defend himself, so to be honest I will point out here that it is a little abusive to pull a sentence out of its 200 pages of context and mock the author. Kuhn was highly educated in the science subjects which he wrote about, and there is definitely some subtle point in that book which may justify a close reading. I have not yet found it, but then again I have not yet read it very closely. I only read it one time for a class. One of the conclusions I have drawn from scanning the pages over the last few days is that I will put Kuhn's book on my short stack of books to be read closely and urgently. He has much material in there on Newton and Galileo and Dalton and these are very interesting topics, and the little I have read in the last few days looks great. I will be interested to see what I can make of this popular book.

Morris was a (failed) graduate student of Kuhn's, so his opinionator blog sequence was quite personal. He included a number of nuggets which added up to a fabulous stew pot full of stuff. Here are the highlights from my notes:

On the big question, Kuhn's from above on Reality, Morris doesn't tell us much. He replies with the cliche if you don't believe in reality go jump out a tenth floor window.

There are a couple of great personal anecdotes. The "theme" anecdote about Kuhn throwing an ashtray full of cigarette butts at Morris's head is entertaining. A much better one is the story about how he was arrested at a Vietnam protest and climbed out of the fourth-floor holding cell window and never got booked. He went back to the microfiche of the Princeton campus newspaper to find his name listed amongst the arrested students to document the gratifying fact he was on the right side during the war.

He has some fascinating information on the Pythagoreans:

1.) We know virtually nothing factual about the Pythagoreans. Our best single source is Iamblichus, who lived 800 years after. Whether Pythagorus was a scholar or more of a religious cult leader or something in between is not known.

2.) The Pythagorean Theorem was common knowledge to mathematicians in the Sumerian Civilization hundreds of years before Pythagorus.

3.) A (probably) legendary figure is Hippasus of Metapontum. Legend has it that he proved the irrationality of the square root of two and was executed by the Pythagoreans to punish him for this sacrilege.

As good as all this information is, I was puzzled as to how this detracted from Kuhn's thesis.

This is the first instance I have seen where the name Wittgenstein and the term "Gestalt flip" were located in the same paragraph. Wittgenstein wrote about the duck-rabbit in Philosophical Investigations before it was commonly called a Gestalt-flip.

An old and favorite puzzle of mine. Morris makes much of the Kripke argument about naming with the example of the goldfish and he even shows a picture of a goldfish. Now the puzzle is this: goldfish are at the very least orange and often red; they are never yellow and they are certainly never golden. Why do they call them goldfish? I first asked my mom this when I was around seven years old and neither she nor anyone else has ever been able to answer this question for me.

There is a feature about progress which makes it ambiguous at times, and I cannot put my finger on it, but I can give a real life example of what I am writing about. Perhaps this is related to Kuhn's thesis; if I take anything like this from my careful reading of his book I will be much more sympathetic to his argument. I have a colleague who has an advanced degree in Astrophysics. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the S-P orbital transition spectral line in the sodium atom as it shows up on earth instruments arriving here from all over the universe of space and time. A very bright guy. Based on a number of casual (and admittedly sneaky) conversations I have managed to learn that he can look up in a clear sky and identify the Big Dipper and Orion and just about nothing else.

If you had a time travel machine and could assemble a dozen Sumerian priest-astronomers and put them together with a dozen modern members of the Astronomy faculties of Cambridge and Stanford and MIT, under a clear night sky, who do you think knows more facts they could list out in a ninety minute examination period about what is up there? I would bet a lot of money on those guys from Sumer.

Lastly, I have some data which might be useful to some. Kuhn's book is now $13.00 list price from the University of Chicago Press. My copy which I purchased in 1980 was three dollars. Roughly two price doublings in 30 years; you can put that in your spreadsheet if you are keeping a personal Consumer Price Indicator inflation index rate.

14 March 2011

Angle of safety

In February 2009 on the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner's birthday, Timothy Egan wrote a thoughtful tribute to Stegner on the New York Times Op-Ed page. He did not get any facts wrong, but he did not put his emphasis where I would have, although I have only read five of Stegner's books and only three of these were novels.

Stegner's greatest accomplishment was his versatility: first an award winning novelist; second a teacher with award winning novelist pupils (Kesey, McMurtry, &c); third a writer of terrific non-fiction with expertise in history and biography and ecology; and fourth an innovator in environmental politics. My own appreciation for Stegner is centered on two non-fiction books which were essential for my own education:

Beyond the hundredth meridian, and

Where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs.

Egan complained that Stegner is under-appreciated, that even at his home at Stanford University nobody reads him any longer. This complaint is wrong, and perhaps even meaningless. The man's books are in print and his most-read novels have hundreds of five-star reviews on the Amazon web page. There is one lesson in Stegner's books which is not generally appreciated in my experience. That lesson is the environment in the western United States is very fragile and its organic evolution has left it incapable of supporting the number of people living on it. Many people in the eastern United States who have never spent much time in the west do not appreciate this fairly simple fact, regardless of what they have read or heard. If you have not spent enough time there, you may not be capable of appreciating it.

The hundredth meridian in Stegner's book refers to an approximate boundary across the Great Plains of the United States. To the east of this (curved) boundary rainfall will support agriculture, and to the west agriculture requires irrigation because the rain is too sparse. If you look at the google satellite map of the United States, the east is green and the west is brown; the line of demarcation is approximately 100 degrees west in longitude, the hundredth meridian.

The central character in the book is John Wesley Powell, a legendary giant of a man. Powell lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and in spite of this handicap he commanded the first (white man) expedition to navigate the length of the Colorado River. In the vernacular, the man was a little nuts. He was also the first man to raise the issue of water allocation in the settlement of the western United States.

Near Moab, Utah, at the visitor's center to Canyonlands National Park they show a movie about Powell's expedition, and they have a replica of Powell's boats. The technology of rapid running water vessels has come a long way since the 1860's, and people now do this trip for fun. People also suffer accidental death doing these trips for fun with modern vessels. Some of Powell's men were killed by Indians, which is one hazard the current adventurer (and their life insurance underwriter) probably does not have to account for.

In around 1993 I learned firsthand about the fragility of the land in the west. There is a spectacular overlook of the canyons of Canyonlands at Dead Horse Point, at the confluence of the Green River and the Colorado River. As you look away from the river confluence, you can still observe the tracks of seismic survey lines placed by oil exploration companies. Canyonlands was chartered in 1964, at which time seismic surveys were no longer permitted. Now a seismic survey line is a pretty benign environmental impact, but in Canyonlands you can see the remains of one for at least thirty years. On the gulf coast that is going to be invisible after a single growing season. East of the hundredth meridian, the environment is very forgiving. This is the sense in which living east of the hundredth meridian can blind one to the fragility of the environment, and this is the lesson which Stegner worked so hard to provide in his books.

The other thing about life in the West which Stegner expressed better than any I have seen is the human element of opportunism which is so prevalent. In American History class in high school they told us all about "Go west, young man", but they did not tell us this story with any of the detail and passion with which Stegner tells it. His father moved Stegner's family all over the western United States and Canada pursuing an assortment of half-brained schemes and investment scams. Stegner told the story of his father's life in a brutal New York Times Sunday Magazine story which I can no longer link to. The ending was unforgettable.

"He died friendless and penniless of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a fleabag hotel hundreds of miles from his last permanent address, after a lifetime of creating more environmental damage than he could undo if he had a second lifetime to devote to the task."

I have no doubt mangled that quote a little transcribing it from my memory, but that is the gist. I am saddened a little that such a great writer as Stegner did not more fully absorb Emily Dickinson's lesson to tell it slant.


Please see paragraphs 8.4, 8.5 in the Google Terms of Service document!

About Craig

My photo
Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.