INDEX OF TITLES  (0160 - 0180 January 2008)
(NOTE: keywords which appear in the title are not repeated)

     0160 - His Excellency, the Ed   [adequacy, ease, effectiveness, effort, excellence, grace, purpose]
     0161 - An epic mystification    [Aeneid, critique, literature, mythology, Trojan horse, Virgil]
     0162 - Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, etc.   [critique, epic, expression, heroism, language, Latin, literature, self-transcendence]
     0163 - Looking forward to a much needed change   [candidacy, celebrity, effort, election, fight] 
     0164 - The missing ingredient   [desire, meaning, mechanism,order, pattern, purpose, reason]
     0165 - At home everywhere but home   [culture, history, identity, nationalism, religion, society]
     0166 - Hey, it's only 0.1%   [brutality, over-population, pollution, self-destruction, terrorism, WMDs]
     0167 - In praise of low resolution   [aesthetics, Art, image, impressionism, quality, technology]
     0168 - Important   [authority, belief, desire, enjoyment, fear, meaning, significance]
     0169 - Natural, unnatural and supernatural   [artificial, consciousness, imitation, intentional, synthetic, transcendental]
     0170 - I just want to be me   [animals, games, homo sapiens, pretend, psychology, stereotypes, symbology]
     0171 - Beware the most insidious pollution   [deceit, hype, lies, misinformation, noise, webosphere]
     0172 - The joys of Spanish    [enjoyment, history, language, verbacular]
     0173 - My position on some hot button issues   [adaptation, attention, belief, change, consciousness, event, evolution, habit, life, maturity, personality, potential, purpose, renewal]
     0174 - Thinking for fun and profit   [alienation, balance, body, brain, intellectual, physical]
     0175 - What to believe, what not to believe, that is the question   [accidental, aesthetic, authority, choice, desire, experience, faith, God, joy, noise, purpose, reason, religion, truth]
     0176 - Love and science   [codependency, commitment, companionship, consciousness, eros, infatuation, intentionality, language, lust, obsession, romance, sexuality]
     0177 - What I dream of   [beginning, emotion, hope, illusion, memory, newness, reconstruction, recurrent, renewal, subconscious]
     0178 - Are we having fun yet?   [conditions, control, destiny, evolution, hope, intelligence, luck, need, stupidity, technology, understanding, universe]
     0179 - In praise of fruitless labor   [Art, craftsmanship, discovery, effectiveness, failure, inspiration, intentionality, invention, learning, luck, not-knowing, reliability, risk, success]
     0180 - Science and magic   [black box, consistency, explanation, "Genie in a bottle", half-observation, intentionality, miracles]

01/31/08 (#0180)  Science and magic

Science is a matter of observation and explanation. Science doesn't deal with or try to explain anything that has not been observed. On the other hand, science is obliged by its own code of honor to try to explain everything that has been observed. Of course, there is no guarantee that the explanation is true or even, for that matter, possible. However, if possible and well done, it will be logically consistent with the entire body of scientific explanations to date (even if the said entire body has to be revised or wholly reinvented to fit one new observation).

Contrary to some scientists' belief, science makes no claim that everything that is observed is explainable. Indeed there's much that has been observed that is waiting for an adequate explanation with no assurance that one will ever be found. That leaves lots of room for magic and miracles.

One of the rules governing the operations of the universe (and, incidentally, of magic) seems to be this: you can get away with anything as long as nobody notices. In other words, in the virtual world of the unobserved (and technically non-existent) anything goes. The ordinary rules of physics don't apply. The curious fact is that the unobserved can have observable effects. This is because some phenomena are only half-observed. What we observe appears to be only part of an event the rest of which remains unobservable - like a stick with only one end. (This, among other strange phenomena, is how black holes evaporate even though it is physically impossible for anything to escape from them).

So if we could devise a way to make a perfect "black box", one that cannot be penetrated by any method to observe what goes on inside, that would be the equivalent of the Infinite Improbability Drive (cf. "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") or a Genie in a bottle. Then we should be able to somehow reach into that box with our conscious intentionality and pull out absolutely anything - anything our heart desires.

Sounds to me like a worthwhile weekend project.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/30/08 (#0179)  In praise of fruitless labor

There are highly effective individuals with well developed and ingrained work habits and clear intent. They are professionals and skilled craftsmen in their field of work reliably achieving significant results every day. I am not one of them. I also achieve (occasionally) significant results but by a dramatically different, inefficient and unreliable process. If I had to make a living by my labors, I'd starve.

I had a bit of luck the other day: after belaboring an unsatisfactory image for a long time and almost abandoning it as hopeless, I found my way (with a little help from my friend) to that certain je ne sais quoi that distinguishes Art from junk. Pleased with myself I set out to repeat my success. I labored for many hours and in the end I wound up with nothing but unredeemable junk. Lots of it. Evidently that particular spring of creative possibilities was, at least for the time being, exhausted.

So was I, and a bit depressed to boot. But after a night's rest I came to the cheering realization that no well intentioned labor is ever lost. As someone once remarked, we learn far more from our failures than from our successes. Of course, learning a lot while producing nothing is a misapplication of that insight. Failure is only justified when it becomes a stepping stone to success.

This is all well and good but my particular problem is that I don't know what "success" is. I have no clearly defined intent, I don't know what I'm doing and I don't know where I'm going with it. My sole talent lies in recognizing that I have arrived where I want to be after I get there. Usually it is a place I could not have imagined, a complete surprise; not so much an invention as a happy discovery.

Yet getting there is not a matter of pure luck. There is, for one, the initial inspiration which gave me the impulse to start working toward some incompletely envisioned but exciting objective. I may never reach that objective but it gets me moving in some definite direction, one that is not accidental but a response to something that moves me. Secondly, in the process of working out what it is I am reaching for, whether or not I succeed, there are many small tangential discoveries and epiphanies. They may be of no immediate use and I may forget them or brush them aside as distractions from what I'm trying to achieve. But they never go completely away and may become the seed for a future success of an entirely different kind. They become my growing resource of ideas, techniques, solutions, my artistic wealth which I use more or less unconsciously to find my way when I'm lost. Yet this kind of wealth can only be acquired by getting lost and that means risking failure to produce anything. For the time being.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/29/07 (#0178)  Are we having fun yet?

Re TN #177:  What are the ethics of blogging when it involves your thoughts and/or dreams about other, easily identifiable people?  I suggest that there are some thoughts that should perhaps not be posted publicly, lest there be unintended consequences. There's many a doctoral thesis to be written in the years to come on the blogging/MySpace/Facebook/YouTube phenomena of the early 21st century and their impact both on society and on the lives of the individuals who participate (actively or passively) in them.  An unstable teenage girl committed suicide recently in reaction to the hateful "I don't like you anymore" comments that she received from a nonexistent young man - the phantom product of someone else's sick imagination.  None of us truly knows anyone else's fragile ego, capacity for revenge, or any of the other responses that might be aroused by these new means of "human" interaction (or absence thereof).  Artists may not think (or care) about such things; therapists and clergy do.  Peace and grace. - The Rev. Dr. LRWJ

Admittedly, I did not consider that there might be fragile egos among the women who have made an impact on my subconscious (they all are or have been strong personalities). Also, I distinguish very clearly between dreams and reality, but probably not everyone does. I do accept your argument for socially conscious self-censorship. In fact, the Nutshell does draw the line - though there may be some argument about where. - the Ed.

We don't know whether intelligent, self-conscious beings are a common or a rare phenomenon in the universe. I think we can rule out unique - the chances of that are vanishingly small. But intelligent life may well be quite rare in the universe - millions of stars may need to be born to produce one life-supporting planet - which would account for our failure so far to detect any evidence of intelligent life outside our solar system. Still the universe is big and even a rare phenomenon can occur in a great number of instances.

I believe that at least some of the intelligent species of the universe will continue to advance toward their ultimate potential for enjoyment of life, as intended by the source of all being, but many, perhaps most, will fail somewhere along the way. It's a perilous journey. Our own ancestors have squeaked though some awfully close ones to make it possible for us to be here now contemplating our future. With luck we finally made it to the stage where we can actually take control of our own destiny, and now we have nothing and no one to blame but ourselves if we fail. We have progressed far enough to have a real chance at the ultimate success. Luck is no longer a controlling factor but we are still up against stupidity and ignorance. We're not out of the woods yet.

So what are our prospects? Are we making progress or loosing ground? In short term it's hard to tell but it seems to me our potential for success is actually growing, primarily because of the exponential advances in communications technology. As pointed out earlier, communications cuts both ways, spreading information and misinformation alike. And information is not enough - it has to be filtered, sorted, organized and put to a beneficial rather than ignorant or malevolent use. We have to match technological advances with an understanding of our true needs. There's the rub.

Now comes Barack Obama with his audacious hopes. It is my audacious hope that he will be able to lead us toward understanding of our true needs. Or at least get us started on the way. With a few more like him, maybe we can make it.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/28/08 (#0177)  What I dream of

Dreams often evoke strong emotions and we may wake up shaken and convinced we had just experienced something of tremendous importance and significance. I suspect this is an illusion. We rarely, if ever, remember the original dream. We only remember rags and tatters of it, mostly the feelings it had aroused in us, sometimes a few particularly vivid images. In trying to recall the dream we inevitably end up interpreting, rationalizing, improvising, and filling in details so that the dream as we "remember" it is to a large extent a construct of our waking mind. (It is with such reconstructions that Messrs. Freud and Jung were chiefly dealing, whether they were aware of this or not. However, the way we reconstruct our dreams after waking is in itself a revealing window into the subconscious.)

The exception to this is the recurring dream. After a while, we get to where we become familiar with the essential elements of the recurring dream. We can remember those elements quite clearly even if not the exact details of the dream.

I continue to have two recurring dreams (that I'm aware of). One of them, fortunately very rare and generally precipitated by some perceived public failure in my life, is that of returning to school or to work totally unprepared, confused and inapropriately clothed, if at all. A much more interesting and happier recurring dream is one of moving into a new dwelling. It may be a new house or a new apartment - it's very different each time. Well, of course it's different - it's always new! Sometimes there is a darker, worrisome theme interwoven with the excitement and pleasure of starting anew in a new place, but generally it's a happy, positive feeling. And there is a woman present. This woman, with whom I am mutually erotically involved, is a composite of the women who have played a major role in my life. Sometimes one or another of them is dominant in this composite. The theme is of starting a new life together. Invariably I wake up before I can find out how it all turns out, whether we live happily ever after or crash. There is a sense of fragility, of potential for failure. But I wake up hopeful.

It's a life-renewing dream. Evidently I still believe in the possibility for new beginnings. I take it as evidence that I'm alive and still capable of creating something new. That is hopeful.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/26/08 (#0176)  Love and science

Love, love, love. The Nutshell has dealt with love on several occasions already. However, in view of the latest scientific research on love the time has come to speak out again. Science keeps making these great discoveries like "opposite sexes are often attracted to each other" or "food tends to alleviate hunger pains" or "excessive use of poisonous substances is bad for your health", and many others of that ilk. Now science is about to stumble upon yet another great discovery, namely that "love tends to make us crazy". But (although science does not know this yet) the stumbling block is the word "love".

"Love", as pointed out in earlier Nutshells, is a word with many colloquial meanings, some of them contradictory. Until science rigorously defines what it means by "love", it hasn't a chance of a Muslim in the White House of coming up with any meaningful theory of love. To give science credit, it has already distinguished among three different kinds of scientific "love": sexual drive, "romantic love", and companionate attachment.

Sexual drive is relatively well defined and amenable to scientific study being mostly a matter of body chemistry and mechanics.  ¤f I had my druthers I would not honor it with the name of love, but I can't fight thousands of years of culturally ingrained confusion. Still, there is a proper word for it in English - lust - but it's rarely used, except in movie ads and blurbs for "romance" novels.

"Romantic love" is the mischief maker of this trio. Although ill-defined, it has been identified as the principal crazy-making aspect of the syndrome generally referred to as a "love relationship". It includes the sexual drive but has an obsessive emotional component on top of it which focuses the sexual energy on one particular person. Science has discovered that it can have all the hallmarks of cocaine addiction. Greeks called it eros. I still wouldn't call it love. There is a proper English word for it also - infatuation.

Then we have the companionate attachment. This comes closest to what I might call love, but not quite, not the way science has defined it. Science seems to mean by companionate attachment a kind of habituation, becoming accustomed to having each other around regularly, and even coming to depend on it (vis. Prof. Higgins & Eliza).

Nowhere in the scientific lore of love does the word "commitment" appear. Or the word "will". There is a good reason for that: science has not yet come to grips with the phenomena of consciousness and intentionality. And yet these are the keys to true love: a conscious act of will, a promise made and kept.
Until Monday,

Paul W.

01/25/08 (#0175)  What to believe, what not to believe, that is the question

Here is an example of what I consider to be a religious act: given two possibilities (both of them consistent with experience) that 1) the universe has no purpose and makes no sense, or, 2) the universe is a conscious creation/manifestation of a transcendental desire for joy, I choose to believe that the second one is the truth. Of course I cannot prove it, that is the essence of faith (although I do point to the as yet unexplained joy of being as potential evidence). To me, as the artist, this is the only possible choice, the only aesthetically admissible one.

Here are some examples of what I consider to be anti-religious acts: defining a "God", presuming to act or speak on behalf of a defined "God", believing without or against reason, ignoring evidence of experience.

Exercising authority in order to control potential chaos can be a religious act, one in harmony with the universal desire for greatest possible joy which is the ultimate authority. By the same token, sowing chaos through ignorant action reinforced by unreasonable belief (vis. Bush II) is an anti-religious act. A religious act is one that brings us closer to the truth and realization of the universal desire for joy, and an anti-religious act is one that has the opposite effect.

Of course, in a purposeless and meaningless universe, no religious or anti-religious acts are possible. Any accidental agenda (and they are all accidental in an accidental universe) can create temporary local purposes of no universal significance. Since the universe is going nowhere it doesn't matter what happens anyway. Enjoy yourself as best you can if you can. The rest is noise.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/24/08 (#0174)  Thinking for fun and profit

The sharp distinction between "body" and "mind" embedded in our culture is misleading to say the least. The mind is a function of the brain which is an integral part of the body. That a body cannot function without its brain goes without saying. What is not generally recognized is that the reverse is equally true. This may come as a shock to science fiction afficionados, but a brain cannot function without a body. And not just any body. It has to be the particular body it has been intimately integrated with in course of its development. So you can forget brain transplants.

That said, it is also true that the brain is organized into "departments" some of which are concerned with the physical and chemical functioning of the body, including sensations and emotions, and some are dedicated to the abstract processes of "thinking", that is, analysis, synthesis and comprehension. This is the origin of the illusion that "mind" and "body" are separate and independent entities. Actually, both are experiences of the brain, mutually interdependent and integrated.

In a sane and mature human being, the "body" and "mind" functions of the brain are more or less balanced for optimal functioning. Nevertheless, there's considerable leeway on both sides of the hypothetical optimum. So we have intellectuals whose attention is captivated by the analytical/synthetic capabilities of the brain, and we have athletes, dancers and body builders whose attention is focused on the experience of the "body". As you have no doubt noticed by now, I belong to the former group.

We intellectuals are in a minority, possibly because we are less well adapted to the exigencies of life - we tend to be graceless klutzes. (There are exceptions - certain gifted individuals have sufficient brain capacity to be able to give more than ample attention to both the "mind" and the "body" functions. I hate them...) Like most of us intellectuals, I'm out of step with the majority - what most people consider a chore (studying, analytical thinking, researching) I consider recreation and play. And what most people consider recreation - physical play, sports - I consider a chore. This leads to a certain degree of alienation, at least on the casual social interaction level.

Still, we intellectuals have our uses. We make good scientists, philosophers and artists (but lousy politicians). That's not to be sneezed at. And yes, we do enjoy life. At least the optimists among us do, and I am one of them.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/23/08 (#0173)  My position on some hot button issues

When does life begin?

Life is a process of self-replication, self-organization and evolution. It began long time ago and continues without interruption by constantly renewing itself, discarding that which is worn or grown stiff or no longer useful and replacing it with fresh and flexible growth better suited to the present conditions. For an existing species, it does not begin , it continues seamlessly even as its form changes in the process. There is no point in time at which a fertilized egg or an embryo become a new life created ex nihilo . The man, the woman, the sperm, the egg and the embryo are all integral parts of a continuous life renewal and evolution process.

What is a person?

A person is a personality, a relatively stable yet adaptable complex of habits, beliefs, and conscious desires formed by the continuing interaction of genetic characteristics and the environmental conditions (experience). The spectrum of personhood ranges from minimal self-consciousness just above purely mechanical stimulus/response, to highly conscious, attentive and purposefully focused actors. Somewhere along that range there lies a point at which what we recognize as human personality becomes discernible. A human embryo begins its development as a primitive one-celled animal form and proceeds to re-enact the evolutionary process until it becomes a recognizeable primate. The status of a fully developed human person is not reached until some considerable time after birth.

From the human society's point of view, not all persons are of equal value. The value of a person to the society depends in part on the degree, and in part, on the manner of development of his or her personality. However, the potential for development of a socially useful personality also figures in valuation of incompletely developed persons. From the point of view of individual persons, their value to themselves depends on their capacity for enjoyment of life.

What is consciousness?

Consciousness is existence, what happens. Where there is existence - where something happens, where events, changes are observed - there is consciousness. More complexly organized patterns of events/happenings enjoy more complex (higher) consciousness, even self-consciousness.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/22/08 (#0172) The joys of Spanish

I enjoy listening to Spanish as spoken by Latin American speakers. It's a vivacious language well suited to the vivacious Latinos' linguistic needs. It has a certain charming je ne sais quoi (or, rather, no se que) which, despite its vast verbal variety, the standard English lacks. Black English has it, though, and so has Italian. French, charmant  though it may be, doesn't. (Slavic languages have an entirely different kind of je ne sais quoi, more soulful than vivacious). Anyway, I enjoy listening to the Latinos.

Understanding them is another matter. You'd think that a language derived (in major part) from the very succint and lucid language of the Romans might inherit these characteristics. No such luck. Spanish is full of unique peculiarities exclusively its own. No doubt they are fossils of the ancient pre-Roman languages spoken in Castillia and Andalusia as well remains of the centuries of Arabic influence. Be that as it may, some aspects of Spanish construction of sentences seem to me downright unnatural (I know, I know, I shouldn't be using the word...). Much of the time I have to unscramble the sentences first before they start making sense to me - a real bad way to learn a language. I need to wrap my mind around the way the Spanish speakers intuitively think but this has eluded me so far because there is no logic to it. There is, however, a pattern and I will have to learn it by rote - it is what it is and there's just no way to rationalize it.

Then there are all the idiomatic expressions - Spanish seems to be especially rich in them. But this may just be my perception because I am frustrated with the amount of memorization involved. Still I'm determined not to just listen to the Latinos but to join the conversation. Why? I'm not quite sure - I think I have some notions of a boost in my joie de vivre, I mean, allegria de vivir.

Hasta la manana,

Paul W.

01/20/08 (#0171) Beware the most insidious pollution

These days the color du jour is green. This is not a bad thing even if much of that pop greenness is either superficial, ineffective or misguided. There is not anywhere near as much being done to reduce the planet's pollution burden as the hype and ballyhoo put out by the industrial/political complex would have us believe. Nevertheless, some few things are getting done.

What has not quite yet come to everyone's attention is that an ancient source of pollution, which has been with us since Adam & Eve, having found a new and potent source of nutrition in the webosphere has rapidly metamorphosed from a mere snake into a Megagodzilla and is threatening to destroy the Earth, never mind New York. 

Misinformation and plain lies have always been the dark side of learning. As learning became available to masses with the invention and evolution of mass media, falsehood and deception came for the ride. Now, in the Age of Information, information pollution has become at least as critical as the chemical pollution. Some of this pollution is intentional and malicious, the objective being to squeeze the suckers dry, to exact vengeance or just perverse schadenfreude. Some is intentional and ignorant, promoting misconceived and potentially dangerous notions. And much of it is unintentional noise and accidentally created monstrosities gone out of control. The huge and exponentially growing volume of information being generated and transmitted assures that there are stretches of misinformation coursing through the cyberspace big enough to swallow continents.

My personal defence against information pollution is to disregard anything presented in an excited and exclamatory manner or without rigorous back up data and analysis, or anything whose objective and general thesis I cannot readily understand. I only accept (conditionally) information presented in a calm, cool, rational, concise and lucid manner. Humor is acceptable and welcome but hype, buzz, opaqueness and, of course, any claims to unquestionable truth are automatic "kill" triggers.

Until Tuesday (the Nutshell is taking the MLK Day off),

Paul W.

01/19/08 (#0170)  I just want to be me

What I like about my family is that whenever we get together, besides a lot of laughter, we often have non-trivial and well-informed discussions on a wide variety of subjects. Learning for sake of learning being my chief folly, I greatly enjoy these impromptu symposia.

So the other day, among other things, we were talking about social potential evaluation games, such as having people consider what sort of animal they tend to identify with. As it happens, I have participated in such games and thought they were silly (that's my general reaction to any kind of pretend games - obviously I was not meant to be an actor). In my personal case (this may not apply to others) I have a real problem with the animal identification game as an evaluative tool.  

To begin with, I don't know the "standard" symbology of animals (if there is such a thing). I know there are some general associations like lions with bravery, donkeys with stubborness, dogs with loyalty, horses with grace, dolfins with playfulness, etc. but this is all very superficial stuff. Who really knows what's it like to be an eagle or a mouse or a fox? We can only try to imagine it after studying an animal's behavior closely and I don't know enough about animals to make a convincing attempt to put myself in their place. So, rather than say "I tend to identify with a donkey" I would just say "I am stubborn" period. Why drag the donkey into it?

Or I might say "I value cleverness" but I would not say "I identify with a fox" because I consider myself potentially far cleverer than any fox. On the other hand, I acknowledge a lion's superiority in strength, speed and brutality, but I have no need or desire to emulate a lion. If I should need to kill I would use a gun, a very unlionlike thing to do but very human.

In fact, the animal I most identify with is homo sapiens. I would not want to be anything else, I would not know how to be anything else. The animal traits I value most are desire, intelligence and, above all, capacity for understanding. All animals feel desire but it is the human animal that excells in the last two, above all others on this planet.

Until tomorrow (another Sunday Special coming up),

Paul W.

01/13/08 (#0169) Natural, unnatural and supernatural.

In the last Nutshell I argued for the subjectivity of importance. Besides being subjective, importance is also relative. Some things are more important to us than others and it can be argued that nothing is absolutely unimportant. How we choose to distribute relative importance over the range of events that make up our present experience influences the probability of future events. Thus we shape the future according to our desire.

Is this a natural or an unnatural ("artificial") process? Or perhaps even supernatural? I have a longstanding quarrel with the common conflation of the meanings of the words "unnatural", "artificial" and "synthetic".  I don't believe the first one has any meaning at all if by "nature" we mean the universe of our experience. "Artificial" (as in "artificial intelligence") implies simulation, imitation or falsification, like the German word ersatz, and in that sense it has a legitimate raison d'etre. The third word, "synthetic", means "created by combining a number of more elementary entities (things or ideas)". Neither "artificial" nor "synthetic" carries any implication of "unnatural", that is, of being outside of nature and it's processes. Indeed, the phrase "being outside of nature and its processes" is an oxymoron since nature and its processe is what constitutes being.

"Synthetic" is probably the most appropriate adjective descriptive of our consciously intentional future-shaping activity. But like any activity in the universe it is by definition natural.

On the other hand, there are good reasons for supposing that our conscious intentionality is supernatural, that is, transcending nature. This does not make it "unnatural" (the word should be deleted from the dictionairy) - it only means that natural processes cannot account for it. But trying to account for conscious intentionality in terms of natural processes may be putting the cart before the horse. By postulating a transcendental source for our conscious intentionality we can account for the natural processes and offer the only logically consistent explanation for the existence of the universe of our experience. Of course, logic properly questions the necessity of explaining the existence of the universe to begin with, but without providing an answer.

The Nutshell is bundling up and heading north of the border. Back in a few days. Until then,

Paul W.

01/11/08 (#0168)  Important

What is important? Sotheby's and Christie's often have auctions of "important" items though why they are important has always eluded me. (I believe it has to do with their rarity and fine quality - in the world of collecting those attributes are evidently synonymous with importance). Religious leaders tell us it is important not to sin, sometimes citing practical reasons (lists of sins, most famously the biblical Ten Commandments, tend to be socially conscious documents) or, more positively, to love God (necessarily not as well defined as sinning). Politicians tell us it's important to vote for them. Banks convince us it is important to pay off our debt on time by imposing steep penalties for being late. It is universally taken for granted that it is important to take care of our children, and not just for practical reasons although there are many. But what does, in a Nutshell, constitute the essence of importance?

We need to distinguish here between that which we are told is important and that which we believe is important. In the end, it's only the latter that matters. The word "important" means "having real and significant consequences".  I have italicised "significant" because it is key to importance. The consequences must be meaningful to us, we must care about them, either fear or desire them.

Fear is just negative desire so we can define "important" simply as "having real potential to satisfy (to some worthwhile degree) our desire". So the question "what is important?" is essentially the same as the question "what do we desire?". That is the crucial question and I congratulate you if you can answer it clearly to your own satisfaction.

Some of what we desire is universal and basic: food, shelter, security, good health, sex, control/power. These desires come with being a vertebrate viviparous social animal and they do dictate much of what is really important to us. The difficulty arises when as humans we ask ourselves "what else do we desire?"  Simplistically put, having taken care of the basics of mere survival, we desire to maximize our enjoyment of life. But how? An important question.

Until Sunday (the Nutshell is taking Saturday off),

Paul W.

01/10/08 (#0167) In praise of low resolution

(Re: TN#166) If, as you estimate, on average 999 people out of 1000 are not homicidal maniacs, may we assume that 99 of them are probably people of good will and perhaps as many as 9 are motivated to do something to make the world a more peaceful and prosperous place? If my math is correct, those optimistic activists outnumber the dangerous nuts about 9 to 1. Shouldn't that give us a good shot at zero tolerance for bloody mayhem and all its accompanying horros? - the Squirrel

I think there are two problems. One is those 990 other people who, while meaning no harm, get in the way. The other is poor communication and ignorance. If each of the would-be world saviors has a different idea how it should be done, nothing will get done. But, in fact, something is being done, however inadequately, to at least reduce the malignancy and its effects. With the global communications improving exponentially, we can hope... - the Ed.

DVD is about to follow VHS tape into the trashcan of video technology. And all regular TV sets become obsolete this year as digital HDTV becomes the standard. The new recording medium is the super high rez Blue Ray disc, and the surround sound home theatre system with a flat, high resolution screen 62" or larger is the new TV. Anything less than a tack-sharp, photographic quality image on that big screen will no longer be tolerated.

I am duly impressed by the onward march of technology and full of admiration for what has been achieved, even though it has zero impact on my life as a movie viewer. On my 21" computer screen DVDs already look tack sharp and photographic in quality. I don't believe I could tell the difference between a DVD and a Blue Ray disk - not unless I invested in that big screen. With the stock market tanking, this is not in the cards. Besides I have no room for a home theatre in my overstuffed chalet. 

Actually, in the resolution race, I have been backpedaling for some time now. I look at images as an artist not as a tech geek. Ever heard of impressionism? Now there's super low rez for you, and yet impressionists have been huge - they, and their followers, the neo-impressionists, still carry a big fan base among the art lovers. Of course, the photorealists and masters of trompe d'oeille have done quite well too. It's a big world and there's room for everybody (so far...).

Recently, I  finally got around to transferring my earliest digital photo images from the original 3.5" floppies (remember them?) to CDs. I have several thousand images from that era, captured with a 0.64 megapixel Sony Mavica, then the dernier cri of digital camera technology. And some of the images are just gorgeous (even if I do say so myself). They could not be better if they were shot with the latest 11 megapixel Cybershot. In fact, they would not be anywhere near as good.

One of my most fruitful images ever was taken accidentally as I was walking swinging my digital camera on its strap. Somehow the shutter got tripped and a blurry, unrecognizeable smear with some color streaks was recorded. I've had a barrel of fun with that image creating endless variations and composites using different bits of it.

Among art photographers the legendary and notorious "Helga" camera still has a loyal following. What it is is a very bad camera - a toy, really. Some art photographers love it and use it to create their masterpieces. I am not of that school. I seek grace and beauty in my images and "Helga" is essentially graceless. Nevertheless, when it comes to resolution, sometimes worse is better. Sometimes much better.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/09/08 (#0166) Hey, it's only 0.1%...

Reports in the popular media notwithstanding, this is not a world of insane terror and brutality even though, as I write this, millions of crazed humans are inflicting just such on one another and thousands are dying horribly in the process.

Let's put it in perspective: the numbers involved in these atrocities are of the order of 0.1% of the world's population. Of the remaining 99.9%, though not all are classifiable as bona fide workers for peace, justice and prosperity for all, at least none are rabidly intent on rapine and murder. Not overtly, anyway.

This is a cause for rejoicing. The human race is not even in the remotest danger of becoming extinct by intentional self-destruction. Unless, of course, some beserker starts tossing about all those thousands of atom bombs we have stashed away for possible future use. (There's also the possibility we may unintentionally drown in our own sh.. er, pollution, but that's another story).

I don't know how many people the earth can support. If we continue to increase and multiply, some attrition is bound to occur unless we adapt by becoming smaller and getting by on less, or emigrate somewhere else in the universe. Anyway, it's not my problem. For the moment, and for what time I have left here, I feel safe and justified in making a point of enjoying life. After all, if not me, who? If not now, when?

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/07/08 (#0165) At home everywhere but home

In the mid-tenth century the fields and forests of the plains around the Vistula river were occupied by a number of quarrelling Slavic tribes. The Teutonic states to the West, already christianized by the Holy Roman Empire considered the heathen tribes fair prey. An ambitious tribal ruler, Mieshko (phonetic spelling), saw in this perilous situation an opportunity for nation building and achieving significant power. He allied himself with the Pope by promising to christianize the whole region in return for military help with conquering and consolidating the neighboring tribes. Thus it was that Poland came into being as a Christian, Roman Catholic nation right from its inception. (Unfortunately, in the end, this did not discourage the Teutons).

Whatever resistance there had been to christianization disappeared quickly - Mieshko was effective and ruthless in enforcing the official state religion. And ever since, despite now growing secularization (furthered by membership in the European Union) being a Polish patriot has been synonymous with being a zealous and pious Catholic. The decades of atheist Communist regime only served to reinforce Polish piety, yielding a Polish Pope who was key in bringing the regime down. The Jewish population, which became significant in the times of rennaisance and later, was not considered "genuinely" Polish until post WWII times when there were very few Jews left. Protestants were all but non-existent and considered heretics.

Mieshko's vision which merged nationalism and Catholicism stood Poles in good stead through the centuries. It was the strong glue which kept the nation together in face of constant threats from the West and the East and especially when Poland three times disappeared from the map of Europe. It became deeply embedded in Polish culture into which I was born.

I left Poland for North America when I was thirteen and became fully bicultural - the most significant event of my life. Sixty years later, I consider myself, in terms of my cultural identity, a citizen of the universe, drawing on all cultures of the world and bound to none. Sometimes I envy people who are firmly and fully members of their particular culture: the strength of their relationships with one another, the mutual support, the trust and loyalty, the social integration, the teamwork, the whole cosa nostra effect. But I prize my cultural independence far more.

I have been back to Poland several times in recent years. Revisiting the places where I spent my childhood there is something about the landscape that calls out to me - I could feel it unmistakeably, I responded to it emotionally, it felt like home. Yet among the people I feel a stranger. We have much in common and they expect me to be like them. But I am not.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/07/07 (#0164) The missing ingredient

(Re: TN #161) The Nut contributes the following to the Epic Mystification: "There was no agreement among the Greeks or the Romans about why Laoco÷n and his sons were killed by the sea-serpents. One opinion was that Laoco÷n's punishment was not connected with the Trojan War at all. The god of prophecy, Apollo, was simply punishing his priest for disobeying some divine command. An alternative view was that the death of Laoco÷n and his sons was the work of Athena/Minerva or Poseidon/Neptune for causing damage to the dedicatory horse."

If Laoco÷n's death is not related to the story of the Trojan Horse why was it inserted in the middle of it? Where's the logic of timing and sequitur? As for the theory that Minerva or Neptune had anything to do with it, it seems farfetched. The horse was not dedicated to Minerva - that was a lie. And Minerva - goddess of wisdom and protectress of Troy - was apparently absent from action at the time. Or else she too was fooled by the Greeks which is hard to believe. But, I suppose, not impossible. The gods were all too human. - The Ed

The possibility of order and reason arises as soon as there occurs a sufficiently large number of related events. Reason, of course, requires a very high degree of order - it relies on organs of perception, memory, analysis and synthesis all of which are orderly systems depending on a lot of events happening in synch.

Given a large number of related events (i.e. events which mutually influence one another) some degree of local order is actually unavoidable. Such order happens spontaneously as events fall, simply by virtue of their inherent properties and without any intent guiding them, into perceptible patterns of repetitions, symmetries, and similarities by a process analogous to crystallization. If the number of events is big enough, there is a significant probability of self-replicating patterns of events arising that tend to persist in time and space. This is all a matter of mechanics - nothing miraculous here. All that is required is a lot of events which are not absolutely isolated from one another but share a common universe, i.e. effectively have awareness of and capacity to influence one another.

Can such "accidental" formation of patterns, even of very complex self-sustaining or self-replicating ones, lead to formation of organs of reason? Given enough events, technically, yes. It's essentially the case of the universe "looking" at itself. The awareness is already there in the condition that all events in the universe are related. It's just a matter of organizing that awareness into sufficiently complex forms to enable perception and analysis of patterns generally, even including themselves.

What this tells us is that reason is a merely mechanical thing that in itself has no inherent meaning or purpose. It's just there, a natural consequence of a huge number of related events available for local pattern formation. It allows (but does not require) processing of information about the universe and generation of systematized knowledge about the universe. However, it offers no clues as to what to do with that knowledge. What is missing is desire. But that's another story.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/05/08 (#0163) Looking forward to a much needed change

Here's hoping Obama does not get an easy ride into the White House on a wave of public enthusiasm. He may have makings of a great president but his potential would be impaired were he to get in on a popular celebrity status. Because as presidential timber he is unseasoned he needs to fight hard for his candidacy. Fortunately, Hillary is bound to give him worthy opposition against which to prove his mettle. This could be a very good race.

We have an interesting possibility that Obama, one of the youngest presidential contenders might be facing McCain, one of the oldest. Youth seems to be holding the winning hand this year, but such a contest would be fascinating, instructive and perhaps even elevating.

In any case, this election year we are fortunate to have something to work with. There will be no defaults by technicality to special interests this time around. And whoever makes it into the White House, will not be just an improvement over the incumbent (that goes without saying). There will be a real change.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

01/04/08 (#0162) Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton etc.

(Re: TN #161) The question is: did the murder of Laoco÷n & sons by the snakes serve to convince the Trojans that Laoco÷n must have been wrong in his suspicions or did it merely serve to shut up those who shared them lest they, too, be smothered by serpents? - the Squirrel

It does seem like a glaringly crude attempt to influence the debate over the disposition of the Greek horse. But the Trojans wanted to believe bringing in the horse would turn the tide of war (they were correct) so they chose to interpret Laoco÷n's execution accordingly. - the Ed.

The "Illiad", the "Odyssey" and other original epics of that ilk (as distinct from many later imitations) started out as oral mythical histories or legends set in a mnemonically friendly style, i.e. in form of regularly metered verse (suitable for singing or declaiming) with many standardized phrases and epithets. Eventually, they became an art form in their own right as the various bards vied with each other in expressiveness and effectiveness of their language while the content remained more or less the same.

When we come to Virgil's "Aeneid", an epic inspired by the "Illiad" and the "Odyssey", this is no longer an organically grown oral history. Yes, the primary motive is the telling of the heroic legend of the founding of Rome by the descendants of the Trojans, but now the art of language is taken to a highly polished peak of perfection while the plot and incident almost seem to serve to show off the expressive power of language.

This, and the fact that the Latin language is particularly well suited to highly compact construction and pithy expression, is what Dante was rhapsodising about and why he chose Virgil as his poetic mentor and guide. And there were many others equally impressed and inspired, including John Milton. Ultimately, though, it is neither their language nor their often arbitrary and capricious story lines that have kept these epics so influential throughout the history and up to the present. It is their vivid portrayal of human capacity for heroism in face of all odds and gods. They continue to feed our aspiration for self-transcendence.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

01/03  /08 (#0161) An epic mystification

OK, let's step back about three thousand years give or take a coupla centuries. Troy has been under siege by the Greeks for ten (!) years and both sides are getting bored. The Greeks decide something has to be done to break the deadlock.

Some background info: Minerva, aka Athena, is the patroness godess of the Trojans and has a major temple in Troy. Sometime ago, Greeks managed to sneak into the city and make off with the most sacred statue of Minerva whose presence in the city was believed to protect it from its enemies. Minerva, a warrior godess, is apparently fond of horses. Juno, aka Hera, wife and sister of Jupiter, aka Zeus, hates Trojans with a passion ever since a Trojan (Paris) picked another godess (Venus, aka Aphrodite) in a beauty contest. Neptune, aka Poseidon, god of the sea, is sort of ambivalent about the whole Greek/Trojan conflict.

You know the story. Greeks build this humongous wooden horse, far too big to fit through the city gates, stuff its belly with armed warriors under cover of the night and leave it on the beach in front of the city. Then they board their ships and pretend to go home but actually hide behind an island a few miles off. A "renegade" Greek is left behind to be caught and questioned by the Trojans. He "spills the beans" and gets Trojans to believe the horse is an offering to Minerva to make up for stealing her sacred statue, made deliberately too big to bring into the city because it might have the same protective effect as the original statue. He explains the Greeks went home to consult an oracle about what to do next.

Here is where the story gets peculiar. This priest, Laoco÷n, is one of the few who don't buy the Greek's tale. He delivers the famous line: "I fear Greeks even when they are bringing gifts [to gods]" and then tells the Trojans they're idiots for believing this cock & bull story. He actually says that this is clearly a piece of Greek treachery and that the horse is most likely a war machine filled with armed warriors. And he chucks a spear into its belly causing it to ring out with perhaps sound of arms clanging inside.

So what happens next? Suddenly these two fanciful serpents come storming out of the sea, attack Laoco÷n and his two sons and, python-wise, strangle them to death. Then the serpents make at top speed for the temple of Minerva and disappear under one of her statues there. Which clinches the Trojans' decision to tear down the walls of the city and bring the horse in.

Huh? What am I missing here? This story makes no moral or logical or even literary sense. It might make some sense if it was Juno's doing to spring the serpents on Laoco÷n, but sea is Neptune's territory and Juno did not have much influence on him. And what's this bit about the serpents disappearing into the Minerva's temple? Virgil, who tells the story (in the Aeneid), offers no clue, just leaves it hanging there.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W. 

01/02/08 (#0160) His Excellency, the Ed

Like I said, things change. "Few days" turned out to be one. The first surprise of 2008.

So I'd like to take this occasion to present to you His Excellency, the Editor of the Nutshell. "Huh?" you ask, "What excellency?". Good question.

There are among us some who will not accept anything less than highest achievable quality; then there are some who stick with what is adequate and sufficient for the purpose at hand; and some who are satisfied with whatever comes easy. The least likely to achieve or experience excellence are those in the second category.

What is excellence? To jump on my favorite hobby horse yet once again: excellence can only be defined in terms of a purpose, i.e. conscious intentionality. There are two ways to define excellence:

     1)  an action or an object whose effectiveness in achieving its purpose exceeds the established or expected norms, or
     2)  an action or an object of the highest achievable effectiveness.

Excellence is not  intrinsically related to the amount of effort spent even though normally it does take focused and intense effort to achieve. But not always and not necessarily. It can come as free grace, unexpectedly and undeservedly (though one must be ready to receive it). Indeed, the world is full of effortless excellence - any flower is a splendid example. Of course, you need manure to grow a flower and the world is obligingly also full of crap. In fact, the ratio of crap to excellence is undoubtedly greater than 10 to1, but that's another story.

To come back to your question: the Editor of the Nutshell tends to fall into the third category (whatever comes easy) with occasional quixotic forays into the first which usually wind up defaulting to the second. He counts a lot on that free undeserved grace and sometimes gets lucky.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.