The Nutshell Archives

Most ideas can be fitted into a Nutshell
These Archives contain 1001 idea stuffed Nutshells
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Nutshells Nos. 0001-0951 (in monthly folders) can be retrieved by clicking
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The last Nutshell (Number 1001)

Thursday, Cinco de Mayo, 2011

Congratulations on your 1000th Nutshell!! A true millestone! :-)  Not being a numerologist (as far as I know...) 999 seems like "almost there" (like living to age 99), but 1000 is "There!!!" (at least until the next "There"). - Richard

Thank you very much... I have indeed arrived "There" although it turns out to be a place and circumstance I did not and could not foresee when I started the Nutshell. I had no idea how it would end. Now I do. - the Ed

Exit the Nutshell

It took Sheherezade one thousand and one bedtime stories to convince the sultan she was a keeper. There is no record of whether, having saved her life by her wit, she ever told another tale. If she did, none survived. Very likely she lost her inspiration once her life was assured.

The Nutshell has not run out of things to say nor has it become bored with itself. Nevertheless, to all things there is a season and the season of the Nutshell is officially over. On to the Next Big Thing.

Which turns out to be not so Next, probably not so Big and actually very familiar having been a chronic feature of the Ed's life for three quarters of a century. The time has come, the Ed has declared, to pull all the odd bits together and make something worthwhile of it. We are, of course, speaking of Photography with capital P. MFRs know all about it.

The Ed is approaching this new phase with considerable trepidation. For a couple of decades he has lived the life of a gentleman of absolute leisure by divine right. Now he's faced with actually having to earn his self-respect. But this is all as it should be and nothing really new and startling. The main thing is nobody is making him do it, only himself. With luck (which the Ed has more of than a Leprechaun has gold) and persistence (that's another story) the Ed is confident he can produce something that, like Sheherezade, is worth keeping.

MFRs will not be left high and dry. There was once a photographer who set himself the task of taking just one picture a day, every day. Such asceticism and discipline are not in the Ed's nature (rather the opposite) so he proposes instead to try to take one good picture a day, a far less ambitious task. Assuming the Ed can sort out the technology involved a new item (not necessarily but approximately daily) called "Fresh Today" will be added to the feedingthemindseye web site (and perhaps also - horrors! - placed on Facebook) featuring hot-out-of-the-camera images and possibly a few words (with, no doubt, occasional snarky comments by Prickles). 

A printed collection of selected Nutshells, under a tentative title "The Nutshell's Rainbow", is, at the moment, merely a glimmer in the Ed's eye. It may happen, if he lives long enough. MFRs would be entitled to a well-deserved copy. Autographed.

In the meantime, to misquote Thisbe (as presented in "Midsummer Night's Dream"): 
farewell my friends,
thus Nutshell ends,
adieu, adieu, adieu.

Paul W. & Prickles

P.S. I regret that I will never find out what is so special about #1089.

05/04/11 (#1000) 

(Re: TN #999)  Sigh... I suppose someone has to set off some numerological fireworks, if only small ones, on this somewhat remarkable occasion. Thus: 
       999 is the minimum sum of pandigital three-digit primes (i.e., all of the digits 1 to 9 are utilised) to wit: 999 = 149 + 263 + 587.      
999 x 999 = 998001, which, if split, provides 998 + 001 which then returns to 999.< BR > Finally, for those who regularly ignore the rebuffs of "Who cares?" around them, I leave you with:
999 = 27 x 37 ["Who cares?" you ask?] and 1/27 = 0.037037037... while [wait for it!] 1/37 = .027027027... Wake me up for #1089. And oh, yes... congratulations. - Northern Observer

Prickles has got to be impressed by that... and thanks! - the Ed

(Re: TN #999)  “But an all out celebration would be premature and presumptuous” - Osama 
was the spiritual head of his abhorrent organization but he was by no means directing operations. He was like The Godfather – technically the boss, certainly influencing events and revered by his fellow criminals, but very much in the background and, I suspect, a bit of a thorn in the side of the leaders who had to expend a great deal of energy and resources to keep him alive for the past decade - resources that are now freed up.
I agree killing him was the only viable solution but this was indeed a murder and I find it sick and repellant to revel in murder. Those rejoicing are the ones who decried the same reaction by those who celebrated 9/11. - Robin 

I agree - nothing here to rejoice about. At best it is a politically useful accomplishment for Obama. - the Ed

A dedication

I dedicate this one thousandth Nutshell to Domenico Scarlatti, son of Alessandro and a classic late bloomer. For much of his life Domenico was a competent but undistinguished composer. It was Alessandro who was the renowned and much admired celebrity of the musical world of his time. When he was forty five Domenico was appointed to the royal court of Spain in Madrid where he came under the spell of musically talented Princess Maria Barbara. He proceeded to write for her over 550 keyboard sonatas, most of them written between ages of sixty seven and seventy two. They are considered to this day to be some of the finest and most original  keyboard works ever written. Nowadays, when the name Scarlatti is mentioned alone it is Domenico that is being referred to.

Far be it from me to compare my one thousand Nutshells to Scarlatti's 500+ sonatas. I just want to point to the fact that the Nutshells were all composed after I reached seventy three so, late bloomer-wise, I beat Scarlatti by half a decade. And I'm not finished yet. More about this tomorrow.

Here is to late bloomers everywhere!

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

05/03/11 (#0999)

Celebrating a killing

It's hardly a rare situation where we find it necessary to kill. The meat eaters among us are responsible for millions of deaths daily. Less common these days is having to kill in self-defence or to protect our property or honor or faith but common enough. I am excluding from consideration murder which can never be an occasion for celebration. I consider revenge killing murder.

Killing game animals has been a cause for celebration from times immemorial since a kill means we can eat and live a little longer. The higher quality of life enjoyed by those higher up the food chain justifies the killing of lower forms of life.

The case of killing Osama bin Ladin is different. In so far as it may be viewed as a revenge killing, it's murder. Primarily, however, it was a killing in self-defence by those whom he has been terrorizing. His death comes as a relief to millions. It weakens significantly the terrorrist movement he was inspiring. It's not over but perhaps we can breathe just a little easier. But is his killing a cause for celebration?

Perhaps we can celebrate a technically successful conclusion of a decade-long manhunt. (Osama finally made the mistake of staying in one place too long giving the US intelligence people a chance to track him down). Perhaps we can flatter ourselves by viewing his killing as "good" prevailing over "evil". After all, the world is a somewhat more viable place without him. Cause enough to be thankful. But an all out celebration would be premature and presumptuous.

Musings on 999

Prickles, who is a brilliant mathematician and can count to three, probably would not find the fact that 999 is 3 times 333 interesting. Or the fact that it is the largest possible three digit integral number. She is totally unimpressed by numbers bigger than three and she holds numerology in severe contempt. To her, the accident of the decimal system of representing numbers having been adopted by humans because they happened to have ten digits available to count on has no significance. And 999 is just a number which happens to look pseudo-interesting in the decimal system but not necessarily in any other. In other words, mathematically, arriving at the Nutshell #999 is a non-event.

Of course, Prickles is a hedgehog and hedgehogs don't think like humans. We humans wax sentimental and superstitious about curious configurations no matter how irrelevant. We thrust significance upon them, based on a multitude of long-standing traditions arising from ages of counting on our ten fingers. The Ed is, therefore, prepared to accept congratulations on having made it to #999. He is not getting any from Prickles.

Until next time,

Paul W.

05/02/11 (#0998)  Hedgehog dialogs XXXVI

This month, Prickles, the hedgehog I live with, and I will be going on a photographic tour of West Virginia. Prickles is coming because she does not believe I am capable of taking proper care of my Very Important Stuff. She keeps track of it for me as part of her regular duties (the main one being  Sunshine Appreciation) and she is not about to relinquish this office come what may. We had a discussion on the subject last night.

Me:  "Prickles, I don't mind if you come but I warn you, you will be bored silly. When I do photography I do not socialize (and vice versa). I'll be totally ignoring you most of the time. And your cousins won't be coming to keep you company - I can't have a whole menagerie of rambunctious hedgehogs to worry about. This is a single-minded, highly focused mission and I can't have any distractions. So think about it."
Prickles:  "### #### ## ### ## #### #### ## ### ###### # ### ##?"  [The nuances of Hedgehogese are totally lost in translation so there is no point even trying]
Me:  "I have no idea what I'll be photographing. I may be photographing people and animals if an occasion arises or I may not. If you come I may be even photographing you. But I do not belong to the gonzo journalism school of photography - I limit my influence on the scene to my choice of the point of view and the time to press the shutter button. If I photograph you it will not be a conversation between you and me, it will be me observing you without, if at all possible, influencing you in any way, preferably without you knowing it."
Prickles:  "###?"
Me:  "You really want to know?"
Prickles:  "##."
Me:  "Well, OK. It's the difference between capturing images as they happen and creating images by interacting with or controlling the scene in front of the camera (in addition to picking a point of view and a time to shoot, that is). I find I can't improve on the forms and patterns of the world as it is (actually I can, in Photoshop, but that's another story). Taking on the responsibility for rearranging the world - or some part of it - to create an original image (this would be analogous to painting or theatre) is a challenge for which I don't have the necessary talent or resources. Does that make sense to you?"
Prickles:  "### ##.  #### ## #### ##."
Me:  "Anyway, I'll be totally preoccupied paying attention to the evolving scene - as a professional Sushine Appreciator surely you know how the scene is forever changing - and with choosing my point of view and time to capture it. So I won't be paying any attention to you, unless you happen to be the subject."
Prickles:  "### ### #### ## #### # ##!"
Me:  "Well I certainly would feel better about my Very Important Stuff not getting lost or messed up with you keeping track of it as usual. But I can do it myself if I have to. I've managed it before we met."
Prickles:  "### ## #### ## ### #### # ##!"
Me:  "Thanks a lot for the vote of confidence! You needn't be so snarky!"
Prickles:  "####."
Me:  "OK, realistic."

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/27/11 (#0997)  The discomfort zone

A marine who attends the gym where I go to do my daily routine usually wears a T-shirt with this sentiment on the back: "Pain is weakness leaving the body". I disagree with this assertion for several reasons. Physiologically, pain is the alert signal that something is wrong, that body is being damaged. Exercises designed to increase strength may take the body up to the treshold of pain but crossing it is counterproductive. Psychologically, the idea of needing to suffer to achieve something is also wrong-headed. Suffering interferes with rather than promotes accomplishment. It may be sometimes unavoidable but it certainly is not something any rationally thinking person would seek out.

It is true by definition, that a breakthrough (whether physical or intellectual) cannot be accomplished without breaking some existing limit. Breaking anything can be a bit traumatic. Hence the discomfort zone where the unfamiliar meets the unprepared, or at least, less than optimally equipped.

Breakthroughs require a leap of faith and if that faith is not strong enough it can be hard on the nerves. Thus skeptics have a harder time with breakthroughs than believers.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/26/11 (#0996)  No miracles!

That was, in effect, my father's plea whenever he was presented with a grandiose plan for extraordinary action intended to assure a project's glorious success. His method was to set modest but clearly achievable goals and reach them by a series of true and tried steps, none requiring extraordinary measures. He was a civil engineer and his bridges had to be, above all, safe and functional. He could not afford to have to rely on miracles.

My images are unlkely to be lethal and their functionality is purely cerebral. My reason why I can't afford to take extraordinary measures is that I have only very limited resources of energy and time at my disposal. I can afford to hope for miracles (and I do) but I can't afford to wait for them. In the end, I too necessarily make do without miracles. This has an advantage of keeping my work unmiraculously real.

However, this is not the end of the story. From another angle, every event is a miracle. Some are more miraculous than others. The most miraculous of all are those which are "just right" for the present needs fulfilling their function with grace and elegance. They actually occur without extraordinary effort although some extraordinary effort may be involved in working one's way out of a thicket of unwarranted assumptions into the clarity of just what is needed.

I can hope (though not strive) for such miracles in my work. What I don't need (and, indeed, can't have) are "true miracles" in the sense of the impossible happening. That will never happen.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/25/11 (#0995)  Education

Elementary events are not absolutely random. They are informed by the probability field associated with their location in space-time. This is the simplest possible form of education.

For complex organisms education includes adaptation to local conditions, a process which may take many generations. For highly complex organisms capable of self-consciousness education involves formation of that self-consciousness and, at the highest levels, self-transcendence.

Even at its simplest education is not error free. The state of the universe is never perfectly defined and the probability field is fuzzy and mutable. As the complexity of the organism increases the sources of potentially maladaptive error multiply. At the highest levels of consciousness the potential for self-transcendence is threatened by an equal potential for self-destruction.

In other words, there is such a thing as mis-education or, simply put, bad education which misses its mark and results in failure to realize the organism's full potential - an existential tragedy.

However, self-conscious organisms have built-in defenses against mis-education. They are: attention, reason and historical experience of others. With attentive guidance by more experienced individuals it is possible to avoid the worst effects of mis-education. It's a matter of conscientiously applying the available resources, which, I am informed by an authority on the subject, is easier said than done.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/24/11 (#0994)  Hope springs eternal

It doesn't seem right to rain on anybody's Easter Parade. On the other hand, this is no time for cheerful platitudes either. Let's just note that this is the season when the promise of renewed life is finally fulfilled. What remains to be done is to realize the refreshed life's potential. This can sometimes be a drag if we lose sight of the objective which is to enjoy and appreciate our being. It's just that getting there often follows a tortuous and tortured path though, with diligent attention, it doesn't have to. But we're only human.

Still, being human is special, at least on this planet. As part self-transcendent angels who have not yet shed their animal nature we're in a difficult but interesting and hopeful and certainly not impossible situation. Easter reminds us of that. A note to those who look cynically on such frivolities: yes, the Easter bunnies and the new Easter bonnets can play a non-trivial role in this.

Wishing you a joyful Easter,

Paul W.

04/22/11 (#0993)  Personas

The plays put on by the ancient Greeks were highly stylized affairs with no pretention to verité realism. Method acting had not yet been invented. The actors assumed their characters by putting on masks representing those characters. They spoke through the masks hence the Greek word for a mask is "persona" from "per" - "through" and "sona" - "sound".

Our personalities are also such assumed masks by means of which our "I", our unconditioned consciousness, communicates and connects with others.

We absolutely need our personas. They are our visible, distinct, recognizable shapes. We pour our undifferentiated selves into the shape of our either chosen, given or blindly stumbled into personas and thereby become individuals. And what a variety of individuals!

The chaos and noise of life are reflected in the extreme variation in personas. It is often remarked that people seem to have come from different planets. I'd say even different universes. Variation is particularly extreme among people with little or no education whose personas had been shaped by tribal traditions, major life traumas like wars or natural disasters, existential confusion.or any combination of the above. Such influences, combined with innate characteristics of the body inhabited by the self can lead to monstrous distortions of character and understanding, strange and terifying masks. 

And then there are the angelic personas, full of grace and beauty, for whom everything went right, but they are few and far between. Numerous enough though to keep reminding us of the human potential.

Until next time (don't hold your breath),

Paul W. 

04/21/11 (#0992)  The state of the photographic Art

It's well over a century and a half since the first photograph was taken and things have changed. Here's the Nutshell version of the history of photography as Art up to the present time.

At first, nobody thought it could be an Art.  But with the coming of the age of Academic Idealized Realism ("AIR") it became apparent that, except for color, photography was well suited for doing AIR. Elaborate Allegories were staged and photographed and sometimes hand colored. With the collapse of the AIR balloon and the invasion of the impressionists followed soon by cubists, surrealists and abstractionists, photography was left in the dust. Once again, nobody thought it could be Art.

Art or not, photography was immensely useful for recording scenes, objects, events and faces (to this day people cannot get enough snapshots of themselves in various places and situations - a personal photographic history is the norm except these days instead of going into an album it's on Facebook) Photojournalism became the most important genre ("1/100th at f11 and be there" was every starting photojournalist's No. 1 rule). Other genres were scenics, sports, kids, animals, cheesecake, advertising, industrial and scientific. None of this was considered Art until in the Post-Modern Era (which continues to this day) somebody noticed that a) some photographs were particularly truthful records of life as it happens, and b) some photographs were striking as images in their own right whether realistic, impressionistic, surrealistic or abstract, on par with the best of paintings. Consensus rapidly developed that, yes, photography could be Art, after all.

Recently, photography has been actually overtaking painting in the esteem of critics and galleries. A look at the New Yorker reviews of the city's galleries shows that majority of the important exhibitions are of photographs. And photographs are selling at Christie's and Sotheby's at prices comparable to those of paintings.

In the meantime, the digital revolution vastly expanded the technical capabilities of photography. There are now virtually no boundaries. No event is unphotographable, no lighting situation impossible. The camera now exceeds eye/mind in the ability to see, perceive and record. And the recorded image can be far more freely manipulated than paint on canvas.

Aye, there's the rub. Photography has the potential both for being extremely accurate and precise as a record of what happened and also for being utterly false and misleading. Or, more innocently, fantastical and magical. That is its dual personality. It always had it but now its schizophrenia is absolute. We can never again look at a photographic image without wondering is this a straight shot or computer graphics?  Artwise, though, the question may be irrelevant..

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/20/11 (#0991)

(Re: TN #990)  Sir, before we get to what you are missing have too many ffs! But now that molecular biology has flowered, you know that you are missing a few ACTG chains (probably due to an ACT of God.). - The Nut

I beg your pardon? Too many ffs? Nonsense. I looked all around for excess ffs and I couldn't find any. Nary a one. Not here, not there, not anywhere. And as for ACTG chains, I like being unchained, thank you. As they say in the Carribean, me like it like that. - the Ed

Do it now

My new motto. Of course I've known forever that now is the only time there is to do anything. In fact it's the only time, period. Past is a memory, future does not yet exist, now is when it's happening. Except when it isn't.

It is possible to keep the present moment empty, at least locally. Galaxies continue to collide, stars to explode and electrons to jump their orbits but one can remain, for a while anyway, in a bubble of semiconscious passivity. It's a growing temptation as our energy resources dwindle. However, that is not today's topic.

Neither are we concerned here with how doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour. What we are mainly concerned with is the shrinking number of hours. At some point there are not enough hours left for procrastination or hesitation. It becomes a simple matter of now or never. I have decided I prefer now.

I lucked out yet once again. Without really trying I find myself with sufficient time, energy and resources to actually get something done, and the best part is I can do what I really want to do. Except I no longer have time to ponder what it is I actually want to do. Whatever it is, I do it now or never. So, without further ado I'm off to court my perennial Muse with whom I have flirted since childhood and more often and more seriously than any other: Photography. This time, it's really serious.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/19/11 (#0990)  A nagging suspicion

Here's a puzzle:

I see people waxing ecstatic, apparently genuinely so, over a painting, a poem, a musical performance or some other such product of human artifice in which I do not, cannot see anything that could conceivably engender such enthrallment.

I'm sure this is a common enough experience. Most people don't give it a second thought dismissing it as a matter of a difference in taste. I, on the other hand, find this phenomenon a source of deep unease.

Taste is certainly a part of the explanation. And what is "taste"? A conditioning, genetic in part but largely stemming from our early childhood experiences and to at least some extent from all of our life experience to date. Our "likes" and "dislikes" arise from memory images of pleasure or displeasure associated with certain past experiences evoked by the object of our attention. That explains, at least in part, why you love a painting I hate or am indifferent to and why you hate mushrooms and I love them. But there is more to it.

I am not insensitive to beauty and grace when and where I see them. There are works of Art I actually wax ecstatic over myself (though some may mistake my ecstasy for mere mild excitement). The problem is that often where others see grace and beauty I do not see them at all. This is not merely matter of taste, it's a matter of blindness. I suspect there is a whole strange wonderful world out there that some see but I do not.

What confirms this diagnosis is that my blindness is not total. There is a twilight zone where I almost see what I cannot see. The "je ne sais quoi" of certain aesthetic experiences, where I sense a greatness but cannot quite comprehend or appreciate it.

The question arises, what am I missing that as an artist I should be aware of? The answer is, I don't know. I am aware of some of the defficiencies in my vision of the world - I have no sense of proportion (I can usually tell when it is right but I don't know how to make it right) and I can't deal with metaphor (probably my most serious shortcoming). But what else am I missing?

Until next time,

Paul W.  

04/17/11 (#0989)  Refocusing

Somewhere between killing time and killing yourself there lies the happy middle ground, the sweet spot of good life. It is true that I have never been the one to err on the side of overtaxing myself. I have enjoyed my retirement immensely precisely because it allowed me to kill time without any apparent penalty. But whichever side of the sweet spot one errs on, there is a penalty even though it may not be immediately apparent. The universe abhors imbalance and sooner or later restores it. It is better if one has a say in how the balance is restored.

Dissipating one's energy without effect is, ultimately, demoralizing. Granted, I don't have much energy to dissipate, with or without effect, but it's what you do with what you've got that counts. However little one may be able to accomplish the important thing is to do it wholeheartedly and as well as one can. I have tried to follow this principle in doing the Nutshell, scatterbrained as it is.

As a generalist I need variety in my life but this can be very easily overdone to the point of meaninglessness. On the other hand, imposing formal limits on one's actions can deepen their meaning without taking away the variety - viz. the infinite variety of the seventeen syllable haiku or the 140 character tweet. Working out the endless possibilities of a limited form gives shape, sense, direction and integrity to one's work. It gives it focus.

Having taken a lengthy sabattical from image-making I have come (assisted by a sign from heaven) to the point where I am ready to return to it in a more focused way. No more dabbling around the fringes, no more fitful flitting from idea to idea without ever making any of them fully real. This time around I am ready to do it right. It will be necessarily a modest effort but a conscientious one.

My first project is a photographic tour of West Virginia. I have passed once through West Virginia and saw enough of it to be impressed by its sheer beauty. This time I will be making a more leisurely journey of discovery collecting images as I go along. I have no specific plans other than to look, see and record. I have no idea what will come of this but I am confident that it will be something substantial.

My next project after that will be the industrial east shore of New Jersey. That's as far into the future as I am prepared to project. Que sera sera

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/16/11 (#0988)  Free will theorem

John Conway and Simon Kochen, physicists, came up with a "free will theorem" which proves that if humans have a free will then, necessarily, so do elementary particles. This is hardly news to the Nutshell.

The Nuthsell defines "free will" (in uncharacteristically poetic terms) as "consciousness navigating the sea of probability waves towards the object of its desire which is joy". According to the Nutshell doctrine, desire for joy and consciousness are inherent in all particles (a.k.a. "elementary events/observations") and are present in organizations thereof as a complex integral field. This field is capable of conscious choice (intentionality). At the elementary level the choices (degrees of freedom) are very few. They increase with organization and complexity.

Decision which choice to follow is guided absolutely by the transcendental desire for joy and imperfectly (and often erroneously) by our incomplete understanding of the present moment. Understanding requires attention but the attention we pay to here-now is at times merely less inadequate than at other times. This inevitably results missed marks, snafus and excess chaos generally. But that's free will for you. Freedom is the opposite of perfection where there are no choices left (perfection is unimprovable).

Conscious intentionality works through the quantum probability by skewing the statistics towards the desired outcome. This is akin to magic, or, rather, it is magic. By a mere "fiat!" of the desire the probability of a particular event happening is enhanced. What actually happens next is still absolutely unpredictable but over many events the statistical skewing becomes evident and the future is reshaped according to the intentionality of the consciousness. The only condition is that the intended outcome must be possible (i.e. have non-zero original probability).

Until next time,

Paul W.

[P.S. TN #987 (below) was originally posted as written while asleep. It has been considerably revised and cleaned up, should you be interested in revisiting.]

04/15/11 (#0987)  If I could have anything I want

God forbid it should ever happen. But it's getting there. My wants have actually shrunk to the point where I can have almost anything I want.

But what do I want? One thing I don't  want is to be someone other than who I am. That means I don't want to be stronger, handsomer, cleverer, more talented, or even healthier and younger than I am. Nevertheless, I am changing and becoming though I have no idea how. It is a continuing surprise to me. Nor do I want to change the rate at which I am changing because the current rate suits me.

Since I don't want suddenly and spontaneously to change into somebody else, what do I want for me , such as I am? I already have pretty much all I need and want (and more). I am actually a man who has essentially everything. Ironically, it's quite common for people to want things when they can't have them then no longer want them when they can. But three categories of things transcend such fickleness on part of their owners: Art, tools and true friends.

I have nearly all I want in way of musical Arts streaming into my space via the radio. I supplement this by making some music myself. I suppose I could wish for more energy and time to practice my music but that would be necessarily a Faustian bargain. I would love to own inspiring objects of Art as everyday accompaniament to my life and I actually do own a few such but I can't really afford to collect Art. So I create my own with the added benefit of the joy of the creative process. Do I wish that I were rich enough to be an Art collector? I don't think so - such wealth would place more burdens on me than I'm prepared to shoulder. Last but not least, my home theatre provides me with all the theatrical Arts entertainment I can take in and there are far more than enough books on my shelves to keep my mind occupied for the rest of my life.

Tools and ability to use them effectively are a necessary part of life. You gotta have the right tools for whatever it is you do. Good tools are a great help, bad tools an annoyance and a hindrance. There are definitely tools that I covet though I question my ability to use them effectively. One such is a high resolution camera to supplement my present collection of digital compacts - but we're not getting into that here. Other than that I have all the tools I need, and more. 

Which leaves friends. Allegedly you can't have too many friends but my Facebook experience suggests that yes, you can. In this category, a soul mate is what is chiefly wanted. One is lucky to find just one such and many never do. Well, I'm lucky. And I have a number of genuine friends besides.

So, supposing I can have anything I want, what more do I want? A slightly more rational and less chaotic world, I suppose. (I did say anything). Otherwise, not much.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/13/11 (#0986)  Mysteries, cont.

Are some mysteries sacrosanct, their rational investigation inherently forbidden? Of course not. Stern warnings against attempts at intellectual penetration of a "sacred" mystery are a sure sign of a phony mystery hiding some compromising facts (viz. the Wizard of Oz). However, there are mysteries the pondering of which is unquestionably a waste of time (although this may not be immediately obvious).

One class of mysteries not worth thinking about are those that have no practical effect whatever on our actions and intentions. For example, even though the mystery of the "dark" matter and "dark" energy may be of highest import to a cosmologist whose reputation (and salary) rests on his/her interpretation as published in a learned journal, for the average citizen it has zero import and isn't worth half a moment's thought. (However, it would become of general import if an understanding of these mysteries leads to new life-affecting technologies).

Another such class are the mysteries which, even though they may definitely and in a major way affect our actions and intentions, yet there is absolutely no way to resolve them. Such as, for example, whether the universe (and therefore life) has a purpose. That is a matter of pure faith and as such not worth thinking about (although our personal reasons for our faith certainly are).

A kind of mystery that may or may not be worth the effort to solve is the artificial mystery created without strict reference to reality like the perennially springing conspiration theories and speculative fiction. Such synthetic mysteries are often created purposefully as puzzles to exercise and entertain the mind. It can be argued that too much of this kind of entertainment is a waste of time considering that there is no dearth of reality based mysteries to engage our minds fruitfully. But there's a joy to be found in the intellectual dance of pure concepts, for example such as required to construct and prove mathematical theorems. Although whether that qualifies as solving mysteries is debatable. What is a mystery is that these purely synthetic artifacts can and often do reflect actual reality - perhaps because they are creatures of the mind which is indisputably real.

Every true mystery is a challenge to the human mind as a potential source of new understanding.and deserves to be tackled unless it involves an absolute unknowable or an unresolvable paradox. Such ultimate mysteries, like black holes, are essential to the working of the universe which would grind to a halt (and cease to exist) if its every action had to be completely transparent and resolvable to the last detail.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/12/11 (#0985)  More about France

Anatole France, that is. I have misread "The Opinions of Fr. Hieronymus Coignard" (the thinnest volume by France in my library) because, contrary to my custom, I did not read the preface first. France was not a devout (or undevout) Catholic, at least not when he wrote "The Opinions". But he undoubtedly was one in his earlier life and born to it. And it shows. You can take a boy out of the Church but you can't take the Church of of a boy. 

Frankly, I was not eager to read France. I did not expect to learn much from him and rather expected to be bored. But I found myself in surprising agreement with his reasoning, except that France invariably takes it way over the top. An extremist if ever I met one. Saved, however, by unremitting and uncompromising kindness towards all - what Christians might well identify as love of one's neighbor. Except that France spiced his kindness with contempt. He had a deep contempt for the human race and did not exclude himself from that contempt. In fact, his prescribed cure for most of humanity's ills, sorrows and sufferings, which he attributed primarily to universal stupidity and vainglorious pride a.k.a. "honor", was for everyone to hold everyone, incuding oneself, in deepest contempt while being kind to all, including oneself.

If pressed to characterize the difference between France and myself I'd say that he was a warm-hearted cynic while I am a cold-hearted optimist. France was passionate in his views which is why he always went overboard with them, often throwing the baby out with the bath water. I am merely rational in my views even though I am always looking for the upside and the possibility of transcendence. And I tend to pin my hopes on the babies.

But France was a brilliant and highly erudite analyst. To argue with him you really have to be on your philosophical and historical toes. The thing to do is to watch for inconsistencies and paradoxes and catch him red-handed (he readily acknowledges the presence of unresolvable antonymies in his thinking). I'd say the central paradox of France's contemptuous view of humanity is his kindness and tolerance towards it. It's his Christian heritage which he has been unable to shake off.

Until next time,

Paul W. 

04/10/11 (#0984)  Mysteries

We love a mystery, the delight of not knowing, the wonder of it. Indeed, mysteries are essential to our enjoyment of life. We do get a quotidian dose of mystery simply from our inability to predict exactly what will happen next but in these highly civilized and orderly times life is often so tame and so highly demystified as to leave us craving for more, much more. We find ourselves driven to invent fake mysteries for our own delectation. Hence all the conspiracy theories, alien sightings, ghost stories and countless anecdotes of mysterious happenings.

It would seem we hardly need trouble ourselves with fabrication of synthetic mysteries since the universe is an inexhaustible source of genuine ones starting with our own existence. Except that recognition of the real mysteries requires attention to what is actually the case, something we are not very good at. Far easier to spin something out of whole cloth of our imagination. Besides, fabricating mysteries unconstrained by facts is fun. It may well be the origin and the foundation of Art with capital A.

But there are other, more practical uses for invented mysteries. Deception is one. Another is to shield something from inspection or analysis or to hide a secret. Yet another is to cover up inconsistencies in theories and hypotheses. One of the favorite uses of fake mystery is to generate a sense of significance and profundity where there is none. And so on and so forth.

Entertaining as the synthetic mysteries may be, the genuine ones are fruitful subjects for contemplation and study. To the extent they are penetrable by the intellect they are invariably sources of new understanding. And to the extent they are not they remain objects of wonder and speculation.  Without mysteries life is not merely impoverished - it becomes inconceivable.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/09/11 (#0983)  The nastiest of animals?

Started reading at Anatole France. Several volumes of his works have been gathering dust on my shelves for some years now. Needing something to read on the train the other day (never made the train but that's another story) I picked out the slimmest of them to toss into my bag.

From what I've read so far it seems France viewed homo sapiens as a degenerate sub-species of the chimpanzee. (And he was a devout Catholic, too). Humankind, he observed, is not just animal, it's worse than animal. By far. He did believe in salvation by Jesus Christ but I get the impression that he must have visualized heaven as a very small exclusive club with hell the destination of the great bulk of humanity (including most of the Church hierarchy). On the other hand, while railing against the mortifying multitude of humanity's perfidious sins, France was quite tolerant of and rather kindly disposed towards the sins of the flesh which he considered more misdemeanors than felonies. But then he was French.

I agree with France that as an animal homo sapiens is not a very nice one. It's animality is compromised by excess intelligence which leads to far beastlier behavior than anything less intelligent beasts would ever engage in. But, unlike France, I see homo sapiens as evolving toward angelhood. As part angels, humans are capable of genuine self-transcendence. Mere animals can't do that.

The problem is that majority of mankind chooses, out of ignorance and/or inattention, to disregard its angelic side. This is a really serious problem because without our angelic nature operating we are really nasty, vicious animals much too clever for our own good. As I see it, the role of organized religions is to keep reminding us of our angelic nature. Some religions do a better job of it than others.

France is outdated in his views of human lack of progress. In his days progress was very slow compared to the present day full gallop into the uncharted territories. France's world, the everyday work, eat, fuck, sleep world was not changing appreciably. He greatly under-estimated the potential of science and technology. And, in my opinion, he was a little over the top in his assessment of human nature. I believe in general we are more angelic than he gave us credit for. But I am an optimist.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/08/11 (#0982)

(Re: TN #979)  You write ... "the Nutshell presents the following incompleat compendium of  enlightening responses."  When did 'debatable' suddenly become 'enlightening'? - Northern Observer

"Enlightening" as in "food for thought". Which may well lead to fruitful debate. - the Ed 

Lust for power

Nietzsche tried to make a virtue of it by calling it "will to power". But it's just a particular distortion of the general desire to enjoy being to the fullest, a desire shared by all normally functioning human beings. The question is, how?

Achieving high degree of control over one's environment, including its inhabitants, seems like the logical path to making the world of one's experience conform closely to one's desires or, more accurately, one's preferences and prejudices. Hence "the will to power". One difficulty with this approach to maximizing one's enjoyment of life is that one has to maintain control which can be a bitch. This kind of spoils the joy of having it one's way. One tends to become a slave to the never-ending need to stay on top of all potential threats of loss of control.

More to the point, having the power to make the world conform to one's wishes does not necessarily improve one's quality of life. Fulfilment of those wishes often turns out to be disappointing. As a rule one discovers it's not what one really wanted. But what did one really want?

Also, exerting power is a high in its own right and some people seek and wield power for its own sake. Power for power's sake is addictive yet empty. But there can be genuine joy in use of power when it is directed to respond to real needs and to enhance quality of life generally. Such power comes not from externally imposed control but from attention to and consensus on what is actually the case. Power in this case becomes merely a means to an end and not the end. 

What we really want is to enjoy our lives. We need power to bring about conditions favoring this, and we can enjoy the process of using this power, but in the end it's not about power. It's about being aware and appreciative of life's possibilities. 

Untl next time,

Paul W.

Correction:  (Re: TN #981) The average gas consumption of the Prius seems to be closer to about 50 mpg which is still pretty good. Also, I had been too dainty with the gas pedal. It has longer travel than Legacy's. If you push it down far enough the Prius will take off (of course the fuel economy goes out the window). I'm rather enjoying driving it but I do miss the all wheel drive on the way out of my driveway.

04/07/11 (#0981)

(Re: TN #980)  One of my all time favourite Shakespeare plays. I have seen it many time myself, and even find myself quoting the movie in daily conversations! "There's a double meaning in that.." Back in Highschool a group of friends and I put on a little home movie that was a farce of Romeo & Juliet, along with parts from Much Ado About Nothing. Wildly funny and totally embarassing to think back on now. Hey Nonny, Nonny! - Elisa

Hey Nonny, Nonny! indeed... - the Ed


If you want a glimpse of the automotive future, drive a Prius. I'm driving one for a few days while my good old Subaru Legacy is having a transmission transplant.

The Prius has a brake, an accellerator and a steering wheel (all of which, incidentally, are about to become obsolete) but there the resemblance to what we had come to recognize as a "car" ends. The thing has a dual power source (a gas engine and an electric motor) either or both of which may be supplying power to the wheels at any particular time according to the car's own judgement what makes most sense fuel-economy-wise.

The curious thing is it only takes one kind of fuel - gasoline. It does not require plugging into an electrical outlet. The battery that powers the motor is recharged when the gas engine drives the motor (now acting as a generator). And whenever the car is decelerated its kinetic energy is converted into electric current (the process is reversed when the car is accelerated). Recovering the kinetic energy is an obvious booster to fuel economy. Less clear is how use of the dual drives contributes to fuel economy. One way is by shutting down the gas engine automatically whenever the car is stopped. The car can get moving again on the electric power alone and the engine is restarted after the car is already moving. This is a more efficient use of the gas engine.

Apart from its finessed fuel efficiency, Prius bristles with futuristic innovations. It's yet another electronic gadget to wow the geeks. The doors lock at a touch of the handle. They also unlock at a touch. The trick is you need a little transponder somewhere on your person to be able to do this magic. There are zillions of options - the owner's manual devotes some fifty pages to the matter of locking and unlocking the car alone. Same with starting. There's just an on/off push button but it only works if you have the transponder with you in the car. And no, the car won't let you lock the transponder inside.

There's no instrument panel. Instead, about half a mile away out in front there is an electronic display which tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the state of the car and more. Too bad it's totally unreadable if you're wearing sunglasses.

Cruise control does not merely maintain your speed, it also maintains a minimum distance to the car ahead. Electronic lane keeping assistant keeps you in the centre of your lane as long as there are readable lane markers. Imminent collision detector warns you and slams on the brakes. And so on and forth. The next thing will be a car that drives itself and it is being road tested now.

But the Prius had trouble climbing out of my fairly steep driveway. Its accelleration is nothing to write home about. It's perfectly adequate on the road but it's definitely not for the sporty drivers. My old Legacy has a lot more zip and power at 30 mpg. No information on what Prius can typically do on a gallon but the gas gauge went down about a quarter of a tank in 150 miles which would make it roughly 60 mpg.

If you do get a Prius, whatever you do, don't read the owner's manual. Just put your faith in the renown Toyota reliability and assume that nothing is going to go wrong with it as long as you own it. The catalog of things that can go wrong is absolutely horrifing. This is one complicated gadget.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/06/11 (#0980)  Dept. of theatrical reviews:  Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing"

This spirited 1993 version clearly was not made by the BBC. This is no staid, reliable inscenization of the text but a sunny, boisterous romp through the Shakespearean landscape.

"Much Ado" is a tricky play. The dramatic central story of a maiden falsely accused of unchastity on the day of her wedding merely provides context, contrast and background to the much more gripping and psychologically insightful "side" story of two true but reluctant lovers who have to be tricked into discovering that they are in love. The lovers of the central story, Claudio and Hero (an odd name for a woman) are conventional, socially proper and well matched, but theirs is not the ecstatic love of high romance - it is rather a mutually agreeable arrangement. This is important for the play to make sense. Branagh makes the mistake of over-romanticizing and over-dramatizing Claudio and Hero's love. This makes Claudio look like an idiot and a cad for falling for the fabrications of the villain of the piece rather than trusting his beloved.

The couple that really engage us emotionally, however, are Benedick (Claudio's comrade-in-arms) and Beatrice (Hero's cousin and confidante), both avowed singles-for-life, cheerfully cynical about love and marriage. They are actually a perfect match - witty, wise and warm even though leery of love and bereft of any romantic illusions. It is their grief over Claudio and Hero's shocking bust-up that ultimately pushes them into each other's arms. Even so, they are in for a lifetime of sparring. And happily looking forward to it.

The play includes scenes of high comedy reminiscent of the play-within-the-play put on by the rustics in "Midsummer Night's Dream". The vividly rendered master constable Dogberry, his side-kick Verges and the rest of the Watch (night-shift police squad) are over-the-top hilarious. But it's not just simple fun and games - the comedy is woven into the structure of the play to control precisely its emotional pitch. And the Watch plays a critical if bumbling and largely accidental role in exposing the vilain's deceitful plot thus ultimately setting all things aright as indeed they should be in a proper comedy which this is.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/05/11 (#0979)

(Re: TN #978)  I agree. God does not need to be protected by us mere humans. He is more than capable of taking care of Himself.
I guess some people have forgotten the age old saying, Speak the Truth in Love. - Elisa

If they ever knew it... - the Ed


[It has come to the attention of some (though by no means all) people that life poses more questions than it provides answers. For the benefit of those perplexed souls the Nutshell presents the following incompleat compendium of  enlightening responses. - the Ed]

  1. Why me?

Why not you, you silly twit?

  2. Why is there evil?

Because if nothing ever went wrong life would be so unendurably dull and utterly predictable as to be tantamount to non-existence. In fact, if nothing ever went wrong life would not and could not exist. (P.S. What do you mean by "evil"?)

  3. Is there a God?

No. Not a God. But if Life, Universe and Everything is assumed to make sense (i.e. have a purpose) God is what people call the source of that purpose. Assuming LU&E is purposeless requires no God which may be more economical conceptually but existentially is perfectly dreadful. (Conceptual asceticism has no intrinsic value, especially in a purposeless universe, Occam notwithstanding).

  4. What is time?

The sequential order in which events are observed. (Note: it is not possible to "unobserve" an event, or to observe one before it is observed).

  5. What is consciousness?

That which distinguishes between one thing and another, i.e., what makes observation possible.

  6. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it fall, does it make a sound?

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to see it fall, does it actually fall?

  7. How did the world begin? How will it end?

It didn't. It won't. But it's not static, it keeps on evolving (why? see 3. above). (Note: the "Big Bang" was not a unique event).

  8. What happens after we die?

Life goes on.

  9. How can I tell right from wrong?
Pay attention. (Note: joie de vivre is a good guide provided it is genuine, not an illusion or self-deception).

10. What is love?

The most abused word in human language. In its most socially positive and effective sense it is the willingness to see and appreciate others as they actually are and to respond to their real needs to the extent of one's ability to do so. In its lowest sense: sexual lust. And everything inbetween.  

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/04/11 (#0978)  False Gods

Some Christianist nutcase burns a copy of the Koran and all hell breaks loose among Islamists resulting in destruction of property and many dead and wounded. What fun! Such minuscule no-brain effort to produce such a spectacularly grand effect! It positively begs repetition for the sheer shadenfreude of it.

To give Christianists their due, they probably wouldn't riot if some Islamist burned a copy of the New Testament. But those are slim grounds for feeling morally superior.

The hate and rage driving such actions spring from a deep, terrifying insecurity harbored by both parties: a fear that their God in whom they are so heavily invested, on whom their self-esteem and identity depend, may turn out to be only a destructible clay idol of their own making. The God of their faith must therefore be protected from any insult or attack with maximum force and at any cost. Of course, this is tantamount to an admission of their God's feared vulnerability. But the underlying insecurity is buried deep in the subconscious and the rage is disguised as righteous anger. 

This is nothing new - radical Christians and Muslims have been inflicting atrocities upon one another for centuries. But the radicals are not representative of the essence of their respective religions. The truly religious, of whatever faith, perceive God as a trustworthy source of love, joy and peace. Such a God does not require human protection from being harmed. Rather, as instruments of divine will the truly religious people act to promote joy of being in themselves and in others with whom they come in contact.

It is the lack of confidence in an essentially false idea of God upon which one has nevertheless staked one's whole being that leads to fear, hatred and violence. This is an even greater evil than mere Godlessness (not to be confused with "atheism", a meaningless term) which leads to confusion, frustration and depression (and occasionally rage and violence as well).

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/02/11 (#0977)  Are we getting smarter or stupider?

Many years ago I noticed a pattern in the evolution of humanity: a small number of individuals were reaching never before attained heights in intelectual, social and aesthetic realms, demonstrating undisputable advancement not just in humankind's understanding but in its capacity for understanding. Yet, at the same time, the great bulk of humanity seemed to be frozen in its capacity for understanding at the mediaeval levels. Since the population of the planet was growing exponentially while the number of those in the evolutionary vanguard seemed to be increasing at a much slower rate, the net progress of humanity appeared to be about zero or pehaps even negative (I did not have any rigorous statistical evidence for this, just informal observations). The rapid advances in technology did not make the bulk of humanity smarter just lazier and fatter. Yes, there was the potential for people to be better informed but in actuality they were much more likely to be misinformed.

Things have changed since then. The onslaught of misinformation has intensified manyfold but so have defences against misinformation. I believe a genuine democratization of the evolutionary process is occuring. The age of bullshit appears to be coming to an end. Nilly-willy, the world is becoming more transparent and people can't help but see, even if they resist.

Ever an optimist, I am predicting globalization of rational thought. Technology is finally paying off. We will know that rationality has become viral when the current world wide trend to obesity is reversed, when politicians lead people towards a better future instead of blindly following public opinion however ignorant, and when kids are eagerly looking forward to school. Watch for it.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/01/11 (#0976)  Hedgehog dialogs XXXV

Prickles (the hedgehog I live with) and I agree on at least one thing: March is the worst month of the year and the longest (like about forever). So we were both in a celebratory mood this AM.

Prickles:  "### ### ### #### ##!!"  [Despite many arduous but ultimately futile attempts Hedgehogese remains stubbornly untranslateable]
Me:  "Yeah, thank heavens."
Prickles:  "### ### ## #### ## # ## #### ##?"
Me:  "I wouldn't count on it, Prickles. There will still be clouds and rain from time to time, and chilly mornings and evenings. But it's different when the trees are sprouting leaves and flowers are popping out of the ground. That's almost as good as sunshine."
Prickles:  "### ### #### ## ### ####."
Me:  "That's a very astute observation, Prickles. We can certainly appreciate what sunshine has wrought even when it's hidden."
Prickles:  "## # ## #### ##!"
Me:  "Good for you! I'm still waiting for that spring surge of energy. Maybe what I need is some spring tonic - what is it, sulphur and molasses or something yucky like that?"
Prickles:  "### ## #### ##."
Me:  "Are you sure? That doesn't sound right."
Prickles:  "##! ##! ### #### ## #### ## ####."
Me:  "Your family swore by it? I never heard of ice cream and vinegar!"
Prickles:  "### ## ### #### ##### ## ## ####?"
Me:  "Really? And that's what keeps you hopping and dancing with such enthusiasm?"
Prickles:  "##! #### ### #### ###!"
Me:  "You don't say! It does that?"
Prickles:  "##! ### ##!"
Me:  "Well, I don't know, but OK. Yech... that's terrible!"
Prickles:  "Prima Aprilis!"
Me:  "I'll get you for this!"

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/31/11 (#0975)  Dept. of theatrical reviews: BBC's "Comedy of Errors"

This is one of BBC's set of dutiful renditions of all Shakespeare's plays, made for TV, this one in 1983. Like most of BBC's theatrical productions, it is competent, serviceable, and pedestrian. Except for the role of Adriana, played by Suzanna Bertish. Bertish is one of the most strikingly handsome women it has ever been my pleasure to behold and an excellent actress to boot. She steals the show every time she appears. 

"Comedy of Errors" is a far-out situation farce, totally unbelievable, full of puns, bawdry, slapstick and utter confusion, to be played strictly for laughs. Any pretension to realism would seriously damage the sheer fun of it by precipitating all kinds of unwarranted rational objections. Like, would you believe a set of identical twin brothers whose servants are also identical twin brothers, who, after some twenty years' separation and unaware of each other's existence, find themselves by chance in the same town, looking exactly alike, dressed exactly alike, and so also their twin servants? Hey, not only that but they both have the same first name and their two servants likewise. If you can't believe that you've come to the wrong play.

Actually, it's great TV fare except that Shakespearean speech is too splendidly fulsome and exotic for the contemporary audiences. To enjoy the play properly you do have to brush up on your Elizabethan English or you'll miss a lot of the best bits.

The play is expertly constructed for maximum comedic effect. It has been given a general carnival atmosphere (Ephesus, where the play takes place, was known for its charlatans, mountebanks and magicians - St. Paul remarked on this). This amplifies the bizarreness of the situations arising from the mistaken identities. Productions of this play probably should be stylized, even cartoony, to signal its willful unmooring from reality. However, the BBC treatment is straight-ahead literal with beautiful Elizabethan period costumes and scenery (BBC's strength). It's fine though unremarkable but for the unexpected grace of Suzanna Bertish.              

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/30/11 (#0974)  Here's where it's at

As we poke about the universe as seen from the vicinity of the Earth we keep coming across ever new wonders. Those who pay attention to such things find themselves in a never-ending state of amazement, enchantment and awe. But the most amazing, most enchanting and most awesome phenomena in the universe are observed right here on Earth. At the top of the list is our own experience of wonder, enchantment and awe.

The all but incomprehensible vastness of the universe holds numberless wonders but as we encounter them we diligently keep reducing them to neat scientific explanations. Even though we lack the comprehensive Theory of Everything (good luck with that!) with a little bit of imaginative stretching and packing there's damn little that we can't fit into the Standard Model. It seems the objective of science is to eliminate wonder but, of course, wonder is what keeps science in business. Besides, science itself is a wonder.

Anyway, as a result of scientific progress the Big Universe is becoming more and more comprehensible and less and less wonderful. We're not likely to run out of wonders any time soon but we have to dig deeper now. On the other hand, life on Earth remains fully as wonderful as ever.

Here on Earth human consciousness, desire and intentional action easily defeat all scientific attempts at defining, explaining and predicting human behavior and destiny. The mechanisms of mind offer an entire new universe to explore, one even more complex than the universe of the astronomers and cosmologists. And then there is the irreducible phenomenon of consciousness - the No. 1 Wonder of the World.

The human mind contains an antidote to scientific reductionism: while science is restricted to the realm of the possible the mind can imagine and travel through the realms of the impossible. The mind can freely create its own wonders and enchantments. Indeed, there are far more wonders to be found in the mind than in the entire universe as observed and described by science.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/29/11 (#0973)  XZ-1

Well, it has happened, as it was bound to, sooner or later.

Olympus, yes, Olympus (who knew?) after a long absence from the category has hit one out of the park. If I were to choose today which high end digital compact camera to buy it would probably be Olympus XZ-1.

"High end compact" is a very specific term referring to pocket-sized wonders of digital imaging technology offering image quality and versatility that approaches that of the professional cameras (which are heavy, bulky and expensive monsters). Not quite the same, of course, but the difference, except to the pros and some finicky amateurs, is not worth the financial and physical burden that comes with near perfection. I own not one but two high end compacts (a Leica D-LUX 4 and a Canon G-11) and up until recently, these two pretty much represented the top of the heap. No more.

The mere presence of the XZ-1 on the market calls for a review of my equipment needs. But I also have a major photographic expedition in the offing. So I had to take a hard look at the situation.

Here is what it is (non-photo-geeks can skip this paragraph). XZ-1 offers a faster lens of excellent quality with a longer zoom (f 1.8-2.2, 28mm-112mm) than the D-LUX 4 although the wide end is not as wide. It has a super brilliant 3" OLED display which can be supplemented with an excellent clip-on electronic viewfinder (expensive). It has excellent ergonomics - it is very easy and intuitive to use. In some reviews it was alleged that it had lower noise at high sensitivities but on close examination it turned out to be about the same as D-LUX 4 and not as good as G-11 (which is outstanding in this respect).

Bottom line: yes, the XZ-1 has greater capability for excellent images in difficult light situations than either D-LUX or the G-11. Would I trade my D-LUX 4 for an XZ-1? I'd be tempted to, if I could get a wide angle conversion lens for the XZ-1. Would I trade the G-11 for an XZ-1? Probably not. In the end, the XZ-1 advantage is not enough to justify changing my present equipment, especially not if its going to cost me. Perhaps the XZ-2 will be the one I won't be able to resist. For now, I'm sticking with what I've got.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/28/11 (#0972)

(Re: TN #971) Sir, I recently came across a foreword (to a book “Thoughts without a Thinker”) by Dalai Lama, in which the opening sentence is: “The purpose of Life is to be Happy.”  But now my restless and insecure “self” is in misery contemplating how I have to work on Joy. Thanks a lot! -
The Nut

With all due respect to His Holiness, "happy" is too sloppy a word to use in declaratory sentences without explication. Implied in that opening sentence is the assumption that happiness can be achieved and maintained. From this follows that "happiness" that cannot be maintained (e.g. a coke high) is not actually happiness. The sort of maintainable happiness that the Dalai Lama has in mind is what the Nutshell calls "joy". Unfortunately, maintenance requires intention, attention and appropriate action. That last bit, however, can perhaps be some day delegated to intelligent robots to look after while we go to the gym to work off the flab. Relief is on the way, sir, but I would not suggest holding your breath... - the Ed

Divinity manifested

No, absolutely not. The Nutshell may be nuts but not nuts enough to attempt to define "God". So what business has the Nutshell using the word "divinity", in the title yet? Actually, what we plan to talk about in this Nutshell is "manifested divinity" which is finite and observable and thus accessible to human comprehension. We're talking natural phenomena here, people.

The entire universe is often proposed as a manifestation of the divine. Of course, we don't know that much about the universe (even though we think we do) so there's plenty of room for skepticism. To a determined atheist or even an honest agnostic it's not a terribly convincing example. The Nutshell intends to be more subtle than that.

A better choice for an example of manifested divinity is the homo sapiens, the alleged Imago Dei, although some will argue this is actually a perfect counter-example (of course, that's not a proper refutation - a counter-example implies an example but never mind). However, following the Nutshell Principle ("look for the simplest possible example") we're going to keep it real simple, so simple that there is no place to hide and no way to get confused. 

Thus the Nutshell proposes as a manifestation of divinity the simple, fundamental action of distinguishing (or differentiating) between one thing and another, or (which is the same thing) between one state of the universe and another (on the smallest possible scale, of course). We note in passing that the universe is actually made up of a countless multitude of such elementary distinctions.

The reason we propose this elementary action as an example of manifested divinity is that its very occurrence immediately raises two absolutely unanswerable questions: how and why has the distinction been made? That absolute unanswerability, claims the Nutshell, is a mark of the divine. Of course, unanswerability does not prevent us from speculating, which is why homo sapiens (the only animal on our planet capable of speculation) is an intrinsically religious creature.

Until next time,

Paul W.


03/26/11 (#0971)  Do you want to be happy?

Now what sort of an idiotic question is that? Do I seriously expect anyone to answer "no"?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes. There are people who do not want to be happy. Actually.

Why, for heaven's sake? you ask. There are three categories of people who do not want to be happy. Some feel they do not deserve to be happy - happiness fills them with guilt. Some are afraid of happiness - they are afraid that it will soon escape leaving them even more unhappy than before. And some don't believe there is such a thing as happiness or have no idea what it is and cannot even imagine it.

One problem these people share with all the rest of us who do want to be happy is that actually nobody knows what exactly happiness is. Usually people don't realize that they are (or were) happy until after the fact. The moment they ask thamselves the question: "am I happy?" the answer seems to evaporate. People can't tell if they are happy if they have to think about it.

Happiness, being so completely subjective, is actually unrelated to facts on the ground and is not necesarily an indication that all is well with one (although it helps if that is indeed the case). Happiness is associated with feeling in harmony with the present moment, feeling that one is in the right place at the right time, feeling "with it", alert, aware, involved and able to respond to the situation appropriately with grace and effect. Even though it may be only a drug induced illusion. The big problem is that happiness is a feeling and feelings are transitory and change all the time. People may want to be happy but they do not trust happiness to last.

What everybody, without exception, actually wants is to be joyful. The Nutshell defines "joy" as a sense of rightness, of just the right balance of chaos and order in one's life to be interesting wihout being life-threatening. Joy requires attention and action but it is sustainable indefinitely. Joy makes sense of life, it infuses life with meaning. Joy is objective, grounded in facts. And it is supported by conscious intention. Joy is a state of appreciative consciousness which is subtler than a visceral feeling such as happiness.

Unfortunately, attentive, conscious action is rather rare . Most of us are operating most of the time on automatic, acting by habit, blindly seeking that feeling of happiness by trial and error or by clinging to a memory of a past instance and trying to recreate it.

Wishing you joy, until next time,

Paul W.

03/25/11 (#0970)

(Re: TN #969)  The big downside of low energy is that it makes you totally dependent on civilization and technology. - the Squirrel

True. I could not survive long in a Darwinian wilderness. And even in a relatively civilized society I am vulnerable to bullying or exploitation by some particularly animalistic high energy types. Fortunately, they are unlikely to covet my most valued possessions. - the Ed 

The immateriality of the material

First, the definition.

"Material" - adj. & n. (from L. materia - timber, stuff from which things are constructed, rel. to mater - mother; see also "matter", "substance")  As an adjective, "material" describes the essential quality of the universe of experience: "tangible" in the sense of "experienceable, observable". "The material" (meaning "all that which is material in quality") refers generally to the experienced universe.

Ancient philosophers postulated a prima materia, the primary stuff from which the universe of experience is constructed. Of course that begs the question: what is the primary stuff made of? Modern philosophers have pretty much disposed of the prima materia but, unfortunately, they have left dangling the question: what is the universe of experience made of? In other words, what do we mean by "material"?

The Nutshell notes that the universe of experience consists of experience, that is, of observations and concludes, straightforwardly, that observations is what the experienced universe is made of. The next question is, who or what is making all the observations that make up the universe? To this the Nutshell offers a radical but simple and reasonable answer: consciousness.

What is "consciousness"? It's the Nutshell's version of prima materia but subtler. Consciousness, according to the Nutshell, is the "capacity for making distinctions". A distinction constitutes an observation. And the universe is made of observations.

The subtle kicker in this view of how the universe is constructed is that consciousness does not exist apart from the distinction - the consciousness and the distinction are simultaneous and inseparable. Together they constitute the elementary atom of the material reality. We humans are highly complex organisms built up from such atoms. Our complex consciousness is an artifact of our organic integrity as individuals. Our observations as integrated individuals are the net sum of all the observations of which we are made.

There is one other absolutely essential component of the experienced universe which is responsible for the distinction being made in the first place and for the evolution of the universe generally and that is desire. But that's another story.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/24/11 (#0969)  In praise of low energy

There are people in this world, quite a few, in fact, who in a week accomplish more than I do in a year and in an hour what would take me a month. That's in terms of direct personal output, unamplified by a hierarchy of subordinates. These are the high energy people and I find it exhausting just to talk with one. But even people of average energy are, in general, much more productive than I am because I belong to the category of low energy people. That's just the way it is and there is nothing to be done about it.

Low energy may have physiological or psychological causes or both. I'm sure that in my case, as in most cases, it's both but as best I can tell, it's mostly physiological, in part due to marginal hypothyroidism. 

Energy and intelligence are not necessarily correlated. This occasionally gives me an edge over people of average to high energy but below average intelligence. I try to use my energy as intelligently and as efficiently as I can - I have to.

But there is an upside to being a low energy person and it is important that I fully appreciate this. Working more slowly brings opportunities for deeper reflection in course of work and more control over it - it can produce, potentially, more solid, better thought out results. On the other hand, some spontaneity of execution is lost (though not the spontaneity of concept).

Low energy also means low intensity. While this precludes high passion and strong feelings it also weakens obsessions leading to a clearer, more rational view of the world and one's work. It makes for a calmer, more serene life, a good platform for critical analysis. Last, but not least, it reduces stress and wear and tear on the body. However, there is the danger that the stress may drop below the minimum level necessary to keep the body and mind tuned up and functional. I do have to watch for that.

Low energy life is a good life, an enjoyable life. What it lacks in accomplishment and intensity it makes up in peace, harmony and appreciation of beauty. I have learned to be content with it.

Until next time,

Paul W.

04/23/11 (#0968)  Or maybe not

Yesterday's Nutshell notwithstanding, I don't think I am ready for angelhood. Not if it involves being permanently plugged into a universal instantaneous communications device (UICD). There's more to life than communications.

Let's get back to basics here. Why do we aspire to angelhood? What are its rewards? The Nutshell offers a startlingly simple answer: "An intense appreciation of being with no distractions".  Of course, there will always be distractions such as maintenance of the infrastructure that makes being and the appreciation of it possible to begin with but we should be able to relegate that chore to our super-intelligent robotic slaves.

Being an angel is all about appreciation. And no distractions means no unnecessary noise. It is not in the angelic nature to be involved in a chaotic global free-for-all of opinions, beliefs and ideas. Communication among angels takes form of inspiring symposia where individual ways of appreciation are shared and refined and new ones contemplated. 

For angels, as for humans, chaos, creativity and the indeterminate (yet malleable) and ever new future are necessary for appreciation of being. But angels, unlike humans, are exquisitely sensitive to the right balance of chaos and order required to create beauty, grace, wonder and awe. They do not get lost or head out on wild goose chases or waste time on quixotic enterprises. They are focused on deep appreciation of the evolving here-now and on guiding it in the direction of ever greater delight in being.

Since we're part angels already we understand all that but we can't help getting distracted and confused by our animal nature. We miss out on much of potential appreciation of being by chasing false leads and nutty notions. We keep making ourselves miserable which only serves to distract and confuse us more. Some of us go into a tail spin and perish or become permanently damaged. Given our human situation it's no wonder we aspire to angelhood. But will universal instantaneous communication help us achieve it or just drive us completely batty?

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/22/11 (#0967)  The coming of the Age of Wisdom?

A friend of mine, a professional pessimist and curmudgeon who once wrote a column in the Toronto Globe & Mail under the title "The Churl of the Mortgage Manor", was chronically convinced that "things are worse than they could possibly be and rapidly deteriorating". When I, a professional optimist and joymonger, find myself tempted to agree with him, either the world is truly about to fall apart or else I need another antacid pill.

I believe it's just a temporary depression - I've had a bad cold and I haven't yet got over its debilitating effects, is what it is. As soon as I feel more normal I'll don my sandals (spring is here) and go out to stand on the corner of Broadway and 42nd with a big sign proclaiming "THE BEGINNING IS NEAR!". It has to be. I feel it in my bones. "It's always darkest before the dawn" and so on, and so forth.

Truth  to tell, it's not so dark where I am. I could easily ignore the rest of the world and cocoon here in Possum Hollow out of reach of terrorists, tsunamis, radioactive plumes and Republicans. I expect all my bills to continue to be paid until I die by a couple of heretofore reliable governments and I figure the world economy has a few years of expansion left in it yet so for the time being I'm not too concerned about my investments, such as they are. What keeps me paying attention to the world is that I am increasingly fascinated by the phenomenon of humanity (of course, being a member helps). I think it may be on the verge of growing up.

The alternative is a descent into savagery followed, if we're lucky and plucky enough, by climbing out of it again perhaps to go through the cycle again, perhaps to break out of the cycle and complete our angelification. But I think it may just be possible for us to do that before the end of the present cycle. Technology may be the game changer. Maybe the catalyst we need to bootstrap ourselves into full angelhood is the "artificial" (more accurately "synthetic") intelligence.

A.I. can change the game in two principal ways: one, by augmenting our wet-ware to improve the quality of our thinking and, two, by making global communications universal and instantaneous. With a global view of what is actually the case and capacity for in-depth analysis we will have the potential for reaching humanity-wide consensus. Potential, not the actuality. The joker in the deck is that before we can reach such a consensus we must come to an agreement about what it is that we want. At present, individuals, families, tribes and nations each have their own particular beliefs about what constitutes a meaningful human life, many of them in radical opposition to one another. But with effective global communications perhaps rationalization of individual beliefs will become feasible. That would be a giant step towards increasing mutual trust among peoples of all kinds and a start of a serious and fruitful conversation about where we're headed as a species.

The one thing I really hate about dying is that I'll never know how it all comes out. But maybe just as well.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/19/11 (#0966)  The importance of being superficial

MFRs know that I am not a people person. Marvellous animals though they be, people get on my nerves because of the way their intelligence makes them stupid. They have just enough awareness and understanding to get themselves totally confused (and in trouble). And those are the likeable ones. The ones that really raise my hackles are those who manage to avoid confusion by putting on a set of blinders. That is a gross insult to humanity. But let me not get started.

My point is, people are, in general, by and large, for the most part, and as a rule, quite superficial. They don't see the Big Picture so they get lost in the details. I have little patience for details.

But then I had this epiphany.

There is no Big Picture. It's all details. Depth is an illusion - it's just convoluted surface. Surface is where it's at, where life is lived and where everything happens. The Big Picture is just a conjecture, an ex post facto attempt to make sense of the details of life. It's great entertainment and it can even be useful in making short term predictions by noticing local patterns in the surface detail. But the thing is, the Big Picture can only be built from the ground up. It does not exist out there somewhere, ready-made and complete. We make it up as we go along.

In fact, if we don't live life at the level of its details we have nothing to go on. We cannot live in the Big Picture. All we know, all we can know of reality is the details. And we cannot avoid getting lost in the details because whatever maps we may draw of the territory we find ourselves in the map is not the territory. And maps keep going out of date even as we draw them. 

That said, it's still a fact that most people have more brain power than they can handle. My sincere advice to one and all: do not think unless absolutely necessary. And take time to enjoy the details 'cause that's all there is..

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/18/11 (#0965)

(Re: TN #964)  You neglected to mention the planetary magnetic field which is needed to deflect the solar wind, the stream of hot charged particles emitted by the sun which, if it reached the Earth's surface, would promptly fry any life there. - the Squirrel

Yeah, that too. I was deliberately keeping the picture simple for sake of clarity. - the Ed

Energy defined

The challenge was irresistible. Besides, we can't have the Nutshell bandying about undefined terms. It would lose all credibility (assuming it has any to lose). So here is the Nutshell's official definition of energy.

Energy is that which makes a difference (or drives a change [in the state of the universe] - which means exactly the same thing).

Wherever there is a difference, there is energy. The smallest observable difference is the quantum which is also the smallest possible quantity of energy. (There are no differences smaller than the smallest observable difference because observation is what brings a difference into existence -but that's another and rather old story).

Energy is a characteristic of an event, that is, of an observed difference or change. It is descriptive of the difference/change, particularly its magnitude and direction. (Note that all magnitudes are relative - there are no absolute magnitudes. Also, magnitudes are necessarily finite, zero or infinity are not possible.) At the level of elementary events, the difference/change is always a quantum difference (i.e., smallest observable under the circumstances) regardless of its relative magnitude.

Since the elementary events constitute the absolute units of the space-time framework, their energy represents energy density per unit of space-time. This has all sorts of interesting ramifications but we won't pursue them here. We've done our job of defining "energy" and we'll leave it at that before we lose all the readers. (Oh, we lost them all already? Oh well...)

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/17/11 (#0964)

"May you live a hundred years and one more to repent!" (An old Irish blessing)


For once the Nutshell chooses to refrain from beginning with a definition. Defining energy is too daunting a task to encompass within a mere Nutshell. Besides, I doubt it can be done at all (other than as MC2). However, whatever energy may be we know a lot about what it does. For one it makes life as we know it possible.

Life needs a certain amount of energy to sustain itself. This amount has to be just right - not too little and not too much. Insufficiency or excess are both lethal. (Hence planets capable of sustaining life are a rarity in the universe).

The primary source of energy in the universe are the stars (or, more fundamentally, gravitation, but that's another story). Of course, the stars themselves cannot support life - their energy is far too intense. Life needs a platform that is sufficiently far away from a star for the energy flux to fall in the "just right" range. This, by the way, also requires the right kind of atmosphere density and chemistry to filter out the hottest and most harmful rays. Which happens to be the case with the Earth.

The Sun's energy is delivered to the Earth in an approximately steady stream. Some of it is used to drive the weather system. Some of it is used to support life. Some of it is stored in various forms. And some is radiated back out into space. To maintain the status quo all these energy flows have to add up to a net zero. Otherwise the Earth would be getting either hotter or colder with time, eventually becoming unsuitable as a platform for life.

Civilized life uses far more energy than primitive life. We had to find supplementary sources of energy to support our civilized ways and our growing numbers. We could extract some more solar energy out of the weather system (as wind energy, for example) or gather it directly where it is underutilized or reflected back out into space (as in deserts or on rooftops). But the easiest way turned out to be recovering energy stored over millions of years in the form of various carbon compounds.

Unfortunately, that route involves changing the composition and chemistry of the atmosphere which in turn reduces the rate at which energy is radiated out so that the net effect is accumulation of solar energy, i.e. the planet is growing warmer. Which is where we are.  

Now another star-made source of energy available to us is in form of heavy, unstable atoms which can be smashed into smaller atoms releasing quite a bit of energy in the process. In fact, way too much all at once, making harnessing it into useable forms tricky and dangerous. It can be done, but there is always the chance the genie will escape from the bottle and wreak havoc on life.

Our problem turns out to be not insufficiency but, in fact, surfeit of energy - we are generating and using more energy that we can properly manage. We have to get a grip on the global energy flows and rebalance them. Can we do it? Sure. Will we?

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/16/11 (#0963)

(Re: TN #962)  You write, "Things are brought into being by observation. (Unobserved things do not exist.) Observation is a function of consciousness." I find that no amount of (little understood) physics that you might appeal to explains away the question asked by the freshly regained consciousness of the poor sap clobbered by a lightening bolt from behind while on a golf course, or one felled by an unheard falling branch from a tree, or of the victim of a stray bullet fired into the air in reckless exuberance, namely: "What happened?".  Unobserved all (don't give me 'there was a bird that saw it' argument) yet their 'non-existence' (according to some nut ... shell) had interesting existential consequences. No matter how incredibly quickly the brain processed the impact, it was never similtaneouswith initial impact, for process follows event.  I brought this comment into being all by myself, taking your advice to create something easy to start with. - Northern Observer

Good job, Northern Observer, for a first try. No, really. But what exactly is your problem with the little bird that observed the event? Actually, it was not only the bird but also the ionized air through which the bolt passed, and the branch itself or, rather, those molecules and atoms of it that came in contact with the noggin of the victim, the said noggin itself observing the event, at least on the molecular and individual organ level. There were, indeed, witnesses aplenty to the event that temporarily knocked apart the higher cosciousness structure associated with the possessor of the noggin so that at this highest level he was absent for a short time after the event. And the reason his first words on rebooting were "What happened?" is because his intended observation and the actual one were so widely diverse. It happens. It's a statistical world. Intentionality only improves the odds, it doesn't guarantee the results... - the Ed

P.S. No, you can't significantly improve your chances of rolling sixes by intending anymore than you can add an inch to your stature by intending. There are far too many chaotic factors involved. The improvement in odds is lost in the overwhelming system noise. In the latter case there may be other, possibly opposing intentionalities involved - e.g. your spinal cord might be interested in keeping the status quo for reasons of its own

Freedom of belief

The Nutshell has oft noted that we are all believers by sheer necessity. We are only set apart by the content of our belief.

The thing about belief is that it is absolute. Unlike knowledge, belief is not based on inaccurate observations or questionable facts. It is what it is, sui generis, beyond questioning. It is, like love, an act of will. Beliefs fall into two classes: rational, which do not contradict experience, and irrational, which may be partly or wholly out of touch with observed reality.

Standing in for the knowledge we lack and can't (or do not wish to) obtain, beliefs, along with what knowledge we may posess, form the basis of our intentions and decisions. Indeed they provide a far firmer basis than knowledge. We act on our beliefs in full assurance that we are right, a luxury not afforded by mere facts. Such conviction pays off, certainly where there is no conflict between belief and facts on the ground but sometimes also in face of "impossible" odds, overriding facts with sheer faith.

The practical proof of belief is in the results it produces when applied to real life problems. The Nutshell has a simple way of sorting the good and the bad results: the good ones enhance our enjoyment of being, the bad ones do the opposite. To the beliefs which enhance our enjoyment of life we may well apply the honorific of "faith". To those which result in degradation and destruction of life we can apply the label of "fanaticism". In either case it is a matter of acting on something we are absolutely sure of. You can see that kind of absolute assurance in the eyes of a tiger about to pounce on his prey or in the eyes of a martyr being led to a stake or about to blow himself up.

Technically, in a democracy, no attempt may be made to control what people believe. We can use powers of rhetoric to influence what people freely choose to believe and we can use demonstrable facts to correct irrational belief. We can teach people methods of rational thought. But ultimately people will believe what they will believe, much of it without any rational grounds. Often, belief is an emotional, highly subjective response to a psychic trauma. The partitions dividing faith from fanaticism can be thin indeed. It is critical that we pay close attention to the fruits of our beliefs. 

But how, in a country that professes freedom of belief, do we stop someone who acts destructively (in our view) out of profound faith?

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/15/11 (#0962)  How to create practically anything

Things are brought into being by observation. (Unobserved things do not exist.) Observation is a function of consciousness.

The interesting question is, how is it determined what is observed? Experience suggests that intention (that is, informed desire) plays a role but that intention is not the sole determinant of what is observed. In fact, what is actually observed is always at some variance with what was intended. 

This variance has two components: a systematic error due to intrinsic uncertainly as to the relative location and magnitude of what has been observed; and a statistical error due to the number of possible alternative observations and their individual probabilities.

It is important to note at this point that the probability distribution for all possible observations is weighted in favor of the intended observation (proportionately to the clarity and intensity of intention) but this weighting is statistical. In any particular instance any one of all possible observations might be made. However, provided the intended observation is in the realm of possible, a sufficiently large number of observations should yield a "close enough" result.

So go and have fun creating stuff. Hint: for your first creation try to pick something that is not too improbable.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/14/11 (#0961)  Dept. of movie reviews: "Fantasia"

I sympathise with Walt Disney. He was, more so than Norman Rockwell who often transcended that derogatory label, an "illustrator", a commercial artist (with a small a). Disney turned out to be a much better businessman than Artist but he had his Artistic aspirations which were never fully realized. He remained a wannabe Artist. 

He hired people to create his animated movies some of whom were unquestionably Artists. An interesting factoid: for a time Salvador Dalí worked for Disney on production of the "world's first surrealist animated cartoon". It was, in fact, considered for inclusion in "Fantasia". This never happened and the whole project was shelved and buried with no reasons given. I believe Disney felt he lost creative control - it wasn't a Disney product. Fifty years later, after Disney's death, the materials were rescued from oblivion and the short film was completed with the help of the Disney Artist who had originally worked on it with Dalí. But that's another story.

What actually went into "Fantasia" were some hokey attempts at illustrating "absolute" music (Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D), an engaging and quite beautiful semi-abstract graphic interpretation of Tchaikovski's Nutcracker Suite, a hilarious Disney comic cartoon with a score by Ponticelli (Dance of the Hours), a graphically innovative piece of New York nostalgia set to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and, of course, the Sorcerer's Apprentice , a straightforward cartoon set to Paul Ducas' music, the most renown piece of the set, starring Mickey Mouse himself. There's certainly enough here to invite repeat viewings.

Also included but forgettable are Stravinsky's Rite of Spring dressed up in somber, plodding, uninspired graphics and a kitschy illustration of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony featuring topless "centaurettes". The set concludes with Moussorgsky's A night on the Bald Mountain which segueys into Gounod's Ave Maria. The graphics, semi-abstract, now look unremarkable although, for their time, they were probably quite avant guarde.  

"Fantasia" was Disney's attempt to break into the world of Art with capital A. As such, it fails. Nevertheless it is a groundbreaking piece of animation art, as witnessed by the fact that when first released it was a commercial flop (Disney was sincere in trying to distance himself from his commercial instincts). Since then it has become a national treasure and a money maker for the Disney empire. In 2000, "Fantasia 2000" was released to cash in on the fame of the original. It is primarily distinguished by another hilarious Disney cartoon answering the question what happens when you mix a bunch of flamingos and a yoyo. But that's another story.

Until next time,

Paul W.  

03/13/11 (#0960)

(Re: TN #959)  Thank you so much for the wonderful tribute. Here are details of Claire's last days - please feel free to poublish trhem in the Nutshell. Claire was in hospital for the past seven weeks because her normal feeding tube could not be used until a hole in her stomach healed up. Nutrition via intravenous catheter could not be easily administered at home. Although the surgeon in charge felt that the hole should close in 6 to 8 weeks, by the 7th week it still showed no signs of closing, so he was going to schedule surgery to close it on the week of March 5-12. It was not a life-threatening issue, and no one expected her to die. On the night between Friday and Saturday, March 4-5, she was, according to Oudone, the lady attending on her at night, complaining of discomfort and calling for me. Oudone asked her to let me sleep, since if I did not get sleep I would not be able to come and attend to her during the day as I always did with a break between 6 pm and 9 pm to go home for dinner and be with the children. Eventually, Oudone reports, Claire said: "Yes, let him sleep." On Saturday I came to the hospital as usual at around 9:30 am, and found her sleeping peacefully. At noon I turned her over to administer her medication and to enable the nurse to take her vital signs; they were okay. She was a little incoherent when asked questions, but she often was incoherent when sleepy, so I did not think much of it. A doctor happened to be in attendance at that time too, and observed her with great diligence. So I resumed work on my computer, and didn't think much of it. The nurse came to check on her at around 2:30 pm and she was blue around the lips and cold! I was so scared. Doctors rushed in, and some nurses took me out of the room, because I was screaming with anguish so loudly they had to put me into a small room at the back of the nursing station to prevent me from disturbing others. They let me back into the room with her a while later when I had calmed down a bit, and told me she was dead. I felt so guilty that I had not got up from the chair to check on her periodically, but the doctor who had been there at noon, and who had returned as soon as he heard, told me that there would have been nothing I could could have done even if I had checked. The suspicion is that she underwent a pulmonary embolism or a stroke, i.e., a blood clot must have migrated from where it had formed and into some vital organ like a lung or the brain. I orderd an autopsy to find out the cause of the death.

Her death is so unfortunate because her long-standing pain had finally, after about 20 years, come under almost total control with two drugs which had brought it down to almost negligible levels. Had she lived she would have lived an almost pain-free life. I always believed she would live a normal life span. People with her condition, which is called "Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 3" normally do live a normal life span. I don't think it was her underlying condition that was the cause of her death, even secondarily. But perhaps she was borderline between SMA types 2 and 3. People with SMA type 2 die early, typically before reaching adulthood. Nevertheless, if it was a blood clot or stroke that killed her, it can't have been the SMA and in that sense she did indeed live a "normal life span".

She, like Moneca [my daughter who had been Claire's close friend - the Ed] donated her organs. She was cremated on Tuesday, March 7. I have her ashes in an urn which I keep in the living room in a book case full of her books, with an old Bible next to the urn. The Memorial Service was held March 11 at 11:00 AM at Rideau Park United Church. It was a beautiful Service, including scripture readings taken from the Gospel according to John, Chapters 14 and 15, and a hymn adapted from Psalm 90.

I totally understand that you could not be here for the Memorial Service. Please accept for yourself, and pass on to all our mutual friends, my apologies for not having been in touch with all of you more often; I shall try to rectify all my faults as soon as I become aware of them. With my sincerest love and regard, - Ardeshir.

[Per Ardeshir's wishes and with his permission, I publish the text of his comment in full (with minor editing). - the Ed]

My personal values

Now that the Nutshell has disposed of the Great No. 1 Existential Question ("WHY?" - the Nutshell's answer: "to maximize universal enjoyment of being" which is 21st-century-speak for "Ad Majoram Gloriam Dei") there only remain No. 2 ("WHAT?") and No. 3 ("HOW?") to deal with. So let's deal with them.

Unlike No. 1 which is absolutely general and non-specific and applies to all of Creation, Nos. 2 & 3 are specific and personal. They are where the nuts & bolts of creation reside, "where the rubber meets the road" as the saying goes, and they apply differently to each identifiably individual creature, such as me and you. And I am only interested in my WHAT and my HOW. I can't possibly help you with yours - the best I can do is to cheer you on and listen to you without commenting. Also, you're welcome to borrow my logic tool kit.

This is important. The fact that my WHAT and my HOW are unique to me takes a huge, impossible load off my mind. There are no standards set up by anyone else by which I must measure myself (except in so far as it may be part of my personal Goal (WHAT) or my personal Strategy (HOW) to meet some particular other one's standards).

My WHAT and my HOW are delimited by my personal resources and my personality. So what have I got to work with and what do I enjoy? My physical and social resources are well below average. This makes certain choices of WHAT and HOW impractical or self-defeating. E.g., I am not destined to be an athlete or a performer of any sort. On the other hand, I can deal with ideas, words and images more effectively than an average joe. In the world of ideas I may not be a genius but neither am I a klutz. More important than that, ideas interest me intensely.

That's the key. Natural facility is a welcome grace but desire and energy are crucial to success. Energy is the heartbreaker issue for me. My energy and endurance are low and not improving with age. I can't keep up with the pace of the world -  I am forever lagging behind everybody else. This may be daunting but it's not a stopper. In choosing my WHAT and HOW I need to choose tasks which do not need to be accomplished in "real time", all at once, but rather find those whose value is timeless, that can be completed a little at a time with little or no deadline pressure. I can then compensate for low energy by taking more time to complete my tasks. 

There's one other factor I need to be mindful of: my WHAT must be Something New Under the Sun. This means I never know what my WHAT will actually turn out to be. My enjoyment of being comes from creation/discovery of never before seen patterns, ideas, images, of new beauty to make an even greater appreciation of the world possible. Ad Majoram Gloriam Dei. That's my ultimate personal value. The rest is details.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/12/11  (#0959)

(Re: TN #958)  Weighing in here where angels fear to tread!  About your "rant" on Art reviews: put your mind/eyes to rest, dear man/my dear bro., and just enjoy the deliberate obfuscation, otherwise known as Art Babel, for what it usually is: pure entertainment, pure 'n simple!  Emperor's New Clothes comes to mind, one of my all time favourite childhood stories.  From a fellow artist who, like you, is NOT a "sheeple". - c

What strikes me in virtually all the reviews I read (and it is something I am particularly sensitive to since I do it myself all the time) is how the reviewer's very subjective and/or very fanciful impressions are presented to the reader unironically as the self-evident, carved-in-marble Truth. I am amazed that even the top names in Art Criticism do it, apparently with total lack of self-consciousness. - the Ed

In memoriam  Claire Mehta

It has been my fortune to meet a number of remarkable people and of these one of the most remarkable was Claire Mehta of Ottawa, Canada who died last Saturday at age 55, leaving the world a better place for having lived in it. 

I don't know what finally cut the thread of her life which, according to medical expertise, was not expected to stretch beyond her twenties. Born with a severely disabling disease Claire refused to let that limit her potential. I'm sure she went down fighting - she was not yet finished with her business here. Even so, she leaves a rich legacy widely cast among all who were touched or inspired by her generous spirit, from her husband and their three children, her many friends and family, to all those who have benefitted from her public fight, both as a lawyer and as plaintiff, for the rights of the disempowered and the disabled.   

I don't think many people knew that Claire was a talented artist. It was one of her potentials never fully realized because her chosen direction in life was to help others live better. She never sought glory or appreciation for herself - knowing that she had made others' lives happier was reward enough for her. A true real life hero, she leaves a hole which, as a tribute to her, we, left behind, need to fill in.

Until next time,

Paul W.

P.S. I never made it to Claire's memorial service after all - but that's another story.


(Re TN #958)  I've never read an art review, believing that good art is totally subjective.  All I know is that I am grateful daily for your and your sister's art that graces my house.  Your work has been appreciated by all who have seen them. - Rhoda

You are wise. I keep reading art reviews in hope of learning something but to the best of my knowledge that has never happened. Don't take my over-the-top rant too seriously - it's just an ironic hyperbole (excuse my French). - the Ed.

As you are reading this I am en route to a memorial service for a very dear friend. The next Nutshell is scheduled for Monday, March 14th.
Until then.

Paul W.

03/08/11 (#0958)  Art mis-appreciation

The Nutshell has oft waxed eloquent on the subject of Art with capital A, one of my favorite hobby horses. I thought we had it pretty much wrestled down to the ground and under control. Then I read current Art reviews (by the most respectable Art critics - I read none other) and I wind up tossing them in the air in total frustration. I really must quit reading Art reviews - it's very bad for my nerves.

The only rational conclusion I can draw is that either the Art critics are all complete idiots, the whole lot of them, or I am. Since the latter seems more likely, let's work with that. I am a complete idiot. Fine. What am I doing then pretending to be an Artist? My understanding of Art (going by the reviews I read) is about on par with that of an ant. Maybe not quite so sophisticated as that.

I have not the slightest idea what these people are talking about in their reviews. They appear to be using English but it's 100% incomprehensible. I recognize individual words but all together they make no sense whatever. I can't make anything out. Total blank.

Maybe it's because I have no formal education in Art, Art history, Art philosophy and, above all, Art speak. Evidently, I am a profound Art illiterate and the language of the Art critics is hermetically closed to me. Curiously, Art itself, much of it anyway, is not. I look at Art and I actually appreciate and enjoy it - it actually makes aesthetic sense to me (granted, not all of it, but most). In any case, it makes infinitely more sense to me than the critical reviews. But perhaps - indeed, almost certainly - I am deluded. What I appreciate about Art is undoubtedly Artistically irrelevant and not in the least what it is really about, not even close. After all, I am a complete idiot.

As for creating Art myself - that is, clearly, a wholly pathetic and laughable idea. I might as well try flying to the moon using my ears for wings.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/07/11 (#0957)  What saves America from democracy

Democracy is based on an act of faith in the essential goodness of mankind, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Actually, we have no choice (or, rather, we do, but the alternative is too horrible to contemplate). We have to make that act of faith and we have to make it  true or perish. It's a bootstrapping operation whereby we yank ourselves out of our animal natures and into angelhood. Currently we're in that awkward stage where we're half in half out and tripping all over ourselves.

The Nutshell defines "goodness" as "that which enhances enjoyment of being". (Of course, the Nutshell did not invent that definition. The credit for that goes to Epicurus.) The problem is that most people don't know how to enjoy being. There are many who are actually afraid to enjoy being and then there are some who positively refuse to. Even those who are more than willing to give it a try too often have no clue how to go about it and wind up screwing up horribly and becoming cynical pessimists (assuming they survive). 

The problem is rooted in the confusion about what we are, what is the source of our joy. Much of this confusion comes from the social environment we are born into and raised in. We are taught imperfectly, incompletely and confusingly about what is good and bad in life and eventually we have to sort it out for ourselves through direct experience and such rational analysis as we are capable of. But democrats count on one other factor to improve our education: our inherent goodness, that innate ability to recognize right from wrong if we pay attention. It is the only thing that justifies faith in democracy.

The Nutshell believes that we humans do have the potential for that innate knowledge of good and evil but that in many of us this remains stunted or distorted by deprivation, disease or deliberate deception. The Nutshell has no statistics on this, but it is our impression that those of us who have the grace of an unfettered capacity for enjoyment of being are a distinct minority. We therefore conclude that to the extent that America has prospered and thrived, it is no democracy. Rather, our success as a nation is the doing of a minority of special individuals who have carried us through the democratic noise and confusion by the strength of their grace.

Until next time.

Paul W.

03/05/11 (#0956)

(Re" TN #955)  There is a third possibility which you did not mention: that the economic topping out will be followed by a decline and disintegration of civilization with perhaps a phoenix-like rebirth when things get bad enough. That is actually the most likely scenario and one which may have already been enacted in our mythical past, perhaps more than once. Also: you left out a potentially significant part of the earth-moon-sun system namely the nearby comets and asteroids which could, with little notice, radically change the course of events here on earth. - the Squirrel  

I am an optimist. Ever onwards and upwards, I say. And we now have ways of dealing with wayward asteroids. - the Ed

Why I have no intention of writing a novel

Novels belong essentially to the same category of literature as plays, movies, comics (including "graphic novels") and video games. They have the advantage of being purely verbal leaving it to the reader to supply the visualization in his/her mind. To people with rich imaginations this is a major advantage. To them a good novel can feel much more real and immersive than a movie. Not being limited by time and space considerations a novel can offer fuller detail and greater scope and, unlike a movie whose pace is set by the director, a novel can be savored at the reader's own pace. But I digress.

Even though my dominant mode of appreciation of the world is visual, my principal creative medium is ideas rather than images. More specifically, ideas expressed in a formal language. I rarely use metaphors, allegories, hyperboles, similes or other such poetical paraphernalia. My preferred style is straight ahead clear logic with an occasional bit of irony thrown in. This is not such stuff as novels are made on. 

Making a novel requires verbal artistry, a feeling for the architecture of drama, and a detailed, in-depth familiarity with and caring for its characters. Whereas all I can offer is good grammar. As for characters, I have known a few but never identified with any of them sufficiently to be able to recreate their authentic voices. If I were to write a novel, my characters would all speak clearly in gramatically correct sentences and logically constructed paragraphs. Not only that, they would all think and act rationally and avoid saying or doing anything stupid. That's because I would only be interested in writing about human interactions as I think they could be rather than as they are.

Instead of a novel I might be able to pull off some short satyrical pieces. That's because I see things in a literal way which often produces hilarity without my doing anything other than recording what I see and hear. The first and best piece of that sort came into being when I was in the sixth grade. I was in a math class and bored out of my mind as the teacher tried to make the class dummy understand some mathematical concept. So I just wrote down verbatim what the teacher said and what the dummy said. I got caught at this and the teacher took my scribblings and read them aloud to the class. The kids were helpless with laughter.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/04/11 (#0955)  What next?

Some statistics from Wm. Bernstein's "The Birth of Plenty":

    World poverty - reduced in the last 50 years more than in the previous 500.
    Average life expectancy - increased in the last 50 years 
            a) in "developing" countries from 44 to 64
            b) in "developed" countries from 66 to 78
    Average per capita gross domestic product annual increase worldwide
            a) since 1820: 2% 
            b) from the fall of the Roman Empire until 1820 - 0% or negative

Clearly, we're roaring ahead. The world's prosperity is in the process of unprecedented expansion despite occasional minor set backs like the recent recession. So what happened in 1820 that made it possible for the world economy to take off? According to Bernstein, four items reached critical mass: effective protection of property rights and civil liberties, scientific rationalism, efficient capital markets, and fast and cheap transportation and communications. And we never looked back since.

So are we having fun yet? Matt Ridley ("The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves") is convinced the best is yet to come. We just have to find that sweet spot of "sustainable growth". The key word is "growth". It is accepted as self-evident that the world economy must and will continue to grow indefinitely.

I don't see how. Not unless we find a way to expand our world beyond the surface of this planet. We live in an essentially closed system (consisting primarily of the earth, the moon and the sun) whose evolution is a zero sum game. Growth in one aspect is balanced by decline in another. We can optimize the efficiency with which we bring about change. In fact, most of our progress to date has been the result of increasing efficiencies which enabled us to extract much more bang from each erg of work. There's still plenty of room left for further fine tuning of our interaction with the world so prospects for continued economic growth in the foreseeable future are good. But eventually we will come to the point where no further economic growth is possible without giving up something in return. We will have reached the optimal quality of life that the system can support. And then what?

Then we can either settle down to enjoy our as-good-as-it-can-ever-get life, or turn to exploration of non-economic values to enhance our lives further such as interpersonal relationships, arts and mathematics. Perhaps our next challenge will be to achieve full angelhood and thus evolve beyond mere humanity.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/03/11 (#0954)

Sir, (Re: TN #953)  I have just observed A, and have developed probable cognitive interpretations A’, A’’, A’’’ ... How do I avoid choosing an “invalid” Ai  (where i is an irrational symbol)? Who says it is invalid ... the Nutshell? - The Nut

Oh, the Nutshell would never say anything like that. If A', A'', A''' ... all seem to fit the facts on the ground equally well it's your choice, sir, and good luck with it. This is where the leap of faith comes in. But if there is An which does not fit all the facts but you like it better than all the others which do (perhaps it's especially elegant and you have this hunch...) then unless your facts are wrong (which they just might be) choosing An would not be rational (though not necessarily incorrect - you may have just had a paradigm changing epiphany which will bring you fame and untold riches).  - the Ed.

Dept. of movie reviews: "The Beggar's Opera"

John Gay, an Englishman whose life spanned seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wrote several plays and one "opera" for which he is remembered to this day with a bit of help from Brecht and Weil who based their "Three Penny Opera" on Gay's "The Beggar's Opera". Gay was one of those pessimistic nihilists who came to the conclusion that life is a meaningless joke (probably had a lousy childhood). "The Beggar's Opera" is a viciously comical and grittily realistic study of London's low life. For the music Gay borrowed (or stole) a few dozen contemporary ditties. It was different and it was a huge success.

In 1981 BBC produced its version of "The Beggar's Opera". Opulently costumed, with a cast of astonishingly abominable rogues that only BBC could have dug up, with splendid acting, the only thing this version lacks is action. The production is a series of well composed static images in which nothing happens other than the dialog. The actors hit their marks, deliver their speeches or sing, and on to the next still picture. If it wasn't for the marvellous expressiveness of their faces there would be nothing to watch. Nobody moves at faster than a stately pace. There is only one scene which involves anything like cinematic action - the fight between Polly and Lucy, MacHeath's two wives. That's it. Even the bawdy play between MacHeath and his wives and whores languishes on verge of boredom.

That, and the fact that I could not understand a word (my fancy speakers and optical audio cables notwithstanding) was why I fell asleep several times while watching this movie. But I managed to see it to its doubly perverse end. In the original the end is made artificially "happy" by a completely arbitrary last moment reprieve for MacHeath (who is about to be well-deservedly hanged) because, as it is explained to the audience, an opera ought have a happy ending. In the BBC version, the reprieve arrives just a split second too late, as MacHeath falls through the trap door.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/02/11 (#0953)  Real time

We synchronize our clocks to create a standard, universal time grid to which we agree to conform, at least as far as our collective communal activities are concerned. But our actual individual experience of time is variable and independent of this grid. Which is "real"? The experienced time? The standard time? Neither? Both?

Because the space-time locations of events cannot be pinned down exactly the conventional time grid is an approximation though it is precise enough for almost all practical purposes. It is more than just a social convenience: it is an essential part of the infrastructure of a civilization that leads to a huge expansion of opportunities for enjoyment of life. Whether or not that synthetic time grid is "real" it has real consequences.
We arrange much (though not all) of our life around the standard time grid. At the same time we are aware of the discrepancy between the standard and the experienced time as we check our watches. The time we live in, the time that feels real to us, is the experienced time.

The Nutshell holds to the opinion that if it feels real it is real. The Nutshell defines "reality" as "that which is observed", i.e., experienced or felt. Thus, hallucinations, dreams, etc. are real mental events, as real as any of our "normal" perceptions. The problem lies in cognitive interpretation of these events, a problem we have to a greater or lesser degree with all of our perceptions. On the one hand, there is our actual experience - the reality - and on the other, there is our interpretation or explanation of it which can range from rigorously logical, self-consistent and verifiable to wildly fanciful and irrational. But in no case should we ever mistake the interpretation for reality.

Until next time,

Paul W.

03/01/11 (#0952)  Unfair

Who said it had to be fair? Apparently, the angels. Nobody said it had to be fair until the angelification (so far only partial) of homo sapiens . With the angelification came the notion of fairness and the attempts (largely futile) to ensure it. These days, at least in the civilized regions of the planet, it is actually possible to take one's claim of unfairness to a court and maybe even get it acknowledged and redressed (inevitably more or less unfairly).

There is  fundamental justice in the universe without which existence would not be possible. A necessary balancing of order and chaos that allows the universe to evolve. It's a dynamic process, maintained by repeated excursions from the optimal balance and subsequent corrections. At the edges of this process there's plenty of room for unfairness and nowhere is fairness guaranteed. Not what the angels would like to see but that's the way it is. Fairness is an angelic ideal and, like all ideals, in real life it manifests only as a rough approximation.

Now some people jump on this as proof of life's intrinsic unfairness and worthlessness and justification for existential despair. It is no such thing. To begin with, unfairness is never absolute and frequently exists only in the eye of the beholder. Just because you can't have what you want is not necessarily unfair. Bad luck is no more unfair than good luck is. Besides, life needs its ups and downs to keep it interesting and to remind us we're slackening off and not paying attention. Most bad luck is of our own making as is most suffering.

Some things are blatantly unfair, like exploitation of the weak by the strong. In the long run it makes no economic sense and eventually will be corrected by cosmic justice but in the short run (which can span generations) it can wreak social havoc. (Weakness and strength, by the way, are relative terms. Finding oneself "weak" or "strong" in particular circumstances is not in itself unfair.) Sometimes the exploitees are opressed to the point of loosing their life or their humanity (already lost to the opressors) and that is tragically unfair. But this is not what life is about. These are the accidents of life not it's main theme which is enjoyment of being. The mere fact of the joy of being denies all claims of life's worthlessness. The occasional unfairness (where it is not merely imagined) in no way invalidates life's potential for joy.

Until next time,

Paul W.

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