INDEX OF TITLES  (0058 - 0083 September 2007)
(keywords which appear in the title are not repeated)

   0058 - Love: Greeks had four words for it    [choice consciousness devotion evolution infatuation joy kindness liking self]
   0059 - Theology: just a mind game?    [authority experience God religion science]
   0060 - The eye of the beholder    [appreciation beauty balance chaos/order grace meaning symmetry]
   0061 - What am I worth?    [having/giving wealth ]
   0062 - Style and substance    [cars style utility Web]
   0063 - In praise of metaphysics   [explanation the-Nutshell play quality-of-life rationality wonder]
   0064 - Meta-metaphysics    [meta- philosophy physics science] 
0065 - The ultimate evil   [accidental chaos/order death evil ignorance joy meaning predictability uncertainty]
   0066 - Iraq and terrorism: a matter of time scales    [future George W. Bush politics]
   0067 - I remember 9/11   [history]
   0068 - My name, my self   [alphabet history language legality]
   0069 - The Nutshell walks into a bar...   [joke humor]
   0070 - Honor and glory   [angelic aspiration enjoyment self]
   0071 - 600,000 words is not enough   [enjoy etymology "injoy" linguistics love neology]
0072 - The frantic flash-by   [analysis attention reflection time]
   0073 - If you knew Dante like I know Dante   [literature philosophy poetry]
   0074 - Peace and joy   [balance change chemistry choice dynamic experience freedom glory joy sensation]
   0075 - The gramophone   [history music record song]
   0076 - Evolving our techno-shell   [change evolution shell technology]
   0077 - The case for rational romanticism    [control emotion faith feekings free will intentionaliuty purpose value]
   0078 - The harmony of science and religion   [authority experience explanation faith logic meaning purpose revelation]
   0079 - Rational action vs. free will    [belief choice faith imagination knowledge logic uncertainty]
   0080 - In praise of obscurity: the joys of not knowing    [Art future incompleteness joy life uncertainty wonder]
   0081 - The ways of human being    [ageing groups life men society women]
   0082 - Found in translation    [Dante Jesus language religion semantics theology]
   0083 - Loose screws     [chaos collections order organization]

09/30/07 (#0083) Loose screws

It all started because I could no longer walk into the room where my wood working shop has been squeezed into a corner by the art storage racks and all the remaining space has been filled with stuff I needed to get out of the way and did not know where to put. When even cracking the door open became a problem, I decided Something Had to Be Done.

Applying my brilliant intellect to the problem, I established two principles to guide the Herculean labor ahead of me: 1) rationalize and optimize space use (i.e. organize the stuff) and 2) anything I have not used in last two years goes out of my life and out of the house one way or another.  (Actually, the second principle must be applied first, and the first principle then applied to what's left).

Well, I run into trouble from the word "go!". Take my screw collection. Please!  Over the years I have accumulated screws large and small (including humongous screws suitable for screwing together entire logs and itsy-bitsy-tiny screws only a watchmaker could love) screws of every conceivable variety - wood screws, particle board screws, metal screws, concrete screws, machine screws, carriage bolts, slot head, Phillips head, hex head, square head, round head, oval head, flat head, steel, tempered steel, brass, zinc plated, copper plated, various combination of the above plus a large number of unclassifiable oddball screws. Naturally, I have an equally variegated collection of washers and nuts of every sort to go with my screw collection. I have enough to start a screw museum. Some of these screws I had for decades, others are relative newcomers. OK, so 99% of them I haven't used in the last two years - am I to get rid of this fine collection containing many hard to replace or plain irreplaceable and antique specimens? You gotta have screws around the house for pete's sake! So I spent two days organizing my screw collection.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. There's the nail collection, the wood odds & ends collection, a veneer collection, sheet plastic collection, a collossal collection of odd sized pieces of mat board and foam board, frame and framing materials collection, hardware collection, an adhesives, paints, varnishes and solvents collection, a miscellaneous materials collection, and I haven't even mentioned yet the tool collection. And what about the art, several shows' worth of it? Can't just chuck art because it's been stashed away for several years! So much for the second principle...

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.


09/28/07 (#0082) Found in translation

I'm in the midst of a theological inquiry prompted by my current reading of Dante's "Comedy" ("Divine" was added later, by Bocaccio). You gotta know your Roman Catholic theology when reading the "Comedy" (among a lot of other things) to make sense of it. While I'm at it I'm trying to translate it (the theology, that is) from the biblical/church language into a language that I can understand and work with.

Christianity has developed a dictionary-full of specialized terminology that people (Christians and non-Christians alike) generally take for granted as if everybody understood perfectly what all these words mean simply because they have been around forever. For example words like "good" and "evil" ("good" = "what I like", "evil" = "what I don't like") are not usually given a second thought. And how many Christians have a deep understanding of the meaning of "baptism", "church", "damnation", "eternal", "faith", "glory", "grace", "heaven", "hell", "holy", "love", "peace", "prayer", "redemption", "salvation", "sin", "will" - to pick a few of the favorites. These words are typically bandied about as if their meaning was self-evident. Even, or perhaps especially, words like "Jesus" and "Christ" and "God" are passed around like dollar bills - without anybody even looking at them.

That is not to say you can't practice Christian charity without understanding Christian theology. But you can't read Dante without it. Apart from that, I am trying to sort out the meaning of Christianity for myself - in my own terms. It is my vocation in life to rebel against all synthetic semantic structures and religion provides a prime target for semantic deconstruction. I may be tilting at wind mills but there it is - my duty and my glory as the knight errant in the world of words, righting wrongs and aiding lost causes.

Until Sunday,

Paul W.

09/27/07 (#0081)  The ways of human being

Men go usually through four stages of life: childhood, adolescence, maturity and old age. Many men skip the maturity stage and go directly from adolescence to old age.

Women have more complicated lives. They usually go through five stages of life: childhood, nymphhood, motherhood, matronhood and old age. Some women skip motherhood and many try for perpetual nymphhood but nobody skips the old age (except by dying young).

In general, women get wiser with age. This is less common among men. Nevertheless, there is the myth of the "wise old man" and there may actually be a few of them somewhere in the world. On the other hand, many old women are wise, something men and younger women tend to resent. In the old days they used to express their resentment by burning old women at stake (occasionally they would toss a younger woman into the fire if she got too smart alecky). However, those were the bad old days. Nowadays we just tell mother-in-law jokes and as for the smart alecky younger women, well, there's just no way that a young woman can get too smart alecky - inconceivable.

There is yet a third kind of human being among us, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with gender identification. It is a human multiple, bonded into a couplehood or familyhood or teamhood or neighborhood or villagehood or, sometimes, nationhood. It's a genuinely different way of being human from that of an individual human life. At the elementary level of couplehood the two partners have profound, life changing influence on each other. But even at the other end of the spectrum, truly belonging to a nation has major perspective changing effects on the individual.

Now if only we could experience ourselves as one being belonging to the world...

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/26/07 (#0080) In praise of obscurity: the joys of not knowing

Art is never explicit. The maker of the Art object herself may not be sure what she means by it or may deliberately refrain from expressing her intent explicitly. If the message is perfectly clear, it is not Art, it's a billboard. What makes Art worth looking at is that we are not quite sure what it is we're seeing. There's room for speculation, for wondering, for projection of our own feelings and ideas into the piece, for mind play and creative interpretation.

Art imitates life. Life is never explicit, its unfolding never perfectly predictable. What makes life worth living is that we're never sure what will happen next. There's room for speculation, anticipation, wondering, projecting our feelings and ideas into the unformed future, for mind play, adventure, and creative solutions.

The joy of Art and the joy of life are exactly the same. Of course, life is more dynamic, more variegated and more intense than Art. We are direct participants in it - both artists and experiencers. What Art does for us, though, is to bring us to different kinds of experiences which we might not encounter in the normal course of our life. It can broaden our scope, make us aware that the world is larger than our little niche in it. It may inspire us, give us new ideas, enlarge us and increase our potential for enjoyment of life.

In Art and in life, the joy comes from the challenge and the opportunity of the incompletely formed. In both there is the possibility for creative interaction with the ever new world to influence the yet undetermined future to yield a present that is closer to our heart's desire.

Wishing you success, until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/25/07 (#0079) Rational action vs. free will

What does it mean to have a free will? When we act rationally on basis of facts before us, are we exercising our free will? To act rationally we have no choice but to follow the rules of reason to the logical conclusion and act accordingly. The facts and reason force our action. The only choice we have is whether to act rationally or not: we can choose to ignore the logical conclusion and do something else, in which case we would be exercising our free will, probably to our regret.

Actually it's not as simple as that. In real life, the facts before us are not absolutely clear, nor do we have access to all the facts of the case. We always have to work with imprecise and incomplete data. Applying rules of reason does not lead to a unique logical conclusion. The uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge of facts lead to a number of possible scenarios whose relative likelihood we can only roughly estimate.

What is happening here is that every real situation hands us an opportunity to exercise our free will. Reason takes us only so far, then we have to decide among the alternatives without the benefit of knowing how our decision will play out. In this situation we must find another way at arriving at a decision. We could flip a coin or roll a die, and in some simple situations, that may be adequate. But when the results of our decision really matter, we need to bring something more to the process, something that, if nothing else, will provide a basis for consistency of action as the events unfold. We need to use our imagination to fill the gaps in our understanding with some construction of our own invention and place our faith in it.

The only guide we have in this is what we believe to be the case based on our established system of beliefs about the world and ourselves. So, in the end, our free choice is based on what we believe. The rational choices we make based on what we actually know are not free - they are determined by the situation (to the extent that we understand it).

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/24/07 (#0078) The harmony of science and religion

If science and religion both are dedicated to truth how can they be in conflict? Here's the problem: in science, which is founded in logic, two contradictory statements cannot be simultaneously true (except, apparently, in quantum mechanics, but that's another story). Religion flatly rejects logic. Claiming to have a more trustworthy source of knowledge than science, one not subject to logical analysis, any logical contradictions in its teachings are simply presented as "mysteries of faith" about which nothing further can be said.

The integrity and the predictive power of science lies in its commitment not to leave any apparent paradoxes unexplained. Science cannot be science if it accepts anything on faith or limits in any way intellectual inquiry into all phenomena of experience. Note that science is not in the business of discovering the Truth. It is in the business of inventing logical explanations for the observed phenomena, explanations which can be tested in practice.

The objective of religion is to provide human life with purpose and meaning. This science cannot do. Science has nothing to do with purposes, it is only interest being in what is the case, not why it is the case. In addition, science admits and accepts the incompleteness of its understanding of the world of experience. It can offer practical advice on how to accomplish what we want to accomplish but when it comes to choosing our objectives we have to look elsewhere for guidance.

Religion offers that guidance, arguing that since there is no reliable human authority and no consensus on what the purpose and meaning of our lives may be, the truth about this can only come from a higher source, the postulated Source of all being, the origin of all that exists. Religion (from Latin re-ligare, to rejoin) derives its authority from the direct experience of that Source - that is, from "revelation".

It would help the cause of religion if there were only one consistent revelation. The existence of numerous religions with conflicting teachings is an embarassment. Serious religions pretty much have to claim sole legitimacy or give up their authority. We have yet to sort this out. Be that as it may, religion, in one form or another, plays a crucial role in people's lives, whether they realize it or not. But there is no reason for a "true" religion to be in direct conflict with the scientific view of the world, at least not in any irreconcilable way. There is a limit to how far logic can take us and that is where religion properly takes up the story. But up to that point, I can't believe that any direct revelation from the Source of the world of our experience would deny what is demonstrably the case in that world.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/22/07 (#0077) The case for rational romanticism

We cannot act with conscious intentionality unless we are convinced (at least subconsciously) that we have an answer to the ultimate "why?". Otherwise, we are either preprogrammed automatons reacting mechanically to incoming stimuli, or else we are purposelessly adrift and it doesn't matter what we do or not do.

There are schools of thought that hold one or the other of these latter alternatives to be the case. Firmly founded in reasonable argument, they are not moved by the mere fact of the emotional dismality of these alternatives, and that's where they make their mistake. Facts, after all, are facts and should not be ignored. And the fact is that woman (or man) does not live by reason alone. Indeed, reason is mere infrastructure, a tool we use to build a life for ourselves, but where we actually live is in our feelings.

The question is, then, how do we optimize our feelings? One necessary condition is that we are convinced of our free will, that we feel in control of our destiny, indeed, that we are able to consciously choose our destiny. If this be a mere illusion, then it is a necessary illusion, a concept that I find irrational and unnatural. We need to be in denial of the truth in order to be happy? It doesn't ring true. Evolution is ruthlessly realistic - it has little tolerance for illusions. On the other hand, evolution demands conscious intentional choices from conscious entities. Or else they get eaten.

I feel intellectually safe believing that I can act intentionally to shape the world's (and mine) future. But that brings us to the orignal existential problem: the need for an answer to the ultimate "why?" to give us a direction in life. Experience and reason do not provide it. They present us with facts with no intrinsic value. We have to supply the value. We have to invent or postulate an answer to the ultimate "why?", hopefully one that has the potential for making us happy, and accept it as an article of faith.

Which suggests that the answer lies not in the stars but in ourselves.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

09/21/07 (#0076) Evolving our techno-shell

In astonishingly short time, geologically speaking, we humans have evolved a complex technological shell for ourselves outside of which we can no longer survive. This shell has become an essential part of ourselves. It defines us, defends us and empowers us. We are wholly dependent on it - our clothes, our homes, our transportation and communication, our food supply, all require high levels of technology to produce in quantity and quality we need and demand.

Fragile and easily smashed as this shell may be, it is, nevertheless, our great advantage over other species we share this planet with. The reason is that we have built up this shell consciously and intentionally and we are, at least potentially, in control of its structure and function. Unlike a snail which is stuck with its shell for life, come hell or high water, we can substantially modify our shell to fit the changing circumstances. In other words, we can evolve and adapt to change at a rate many magnitudes faster than other animals of similar size and complexity. We have the capacity to evolve as fast as fruit flies and perhaps even viruses, although it's a close race with the viruses, one which we may yet loose. 

As we change our shell in response to changing conditions, the shell changes us. It is, after all, an essential and integral part of us. It may save us from extinction, at least in the near term (or not), but it will also change us. We are already not quite the same race that occupied earth a mere millenium ago and, like it or not, we are changing faster than we were a millenium ago. We have to - extinction is looming.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/20/07 (#0075) The gramophone

Most of you, I'm sure, remember CDs - those awkwardly large discs you had to carry about by the dozen and handle super carefully so as not to scratch them. You had to keep changing them in a player the size of a frisbee because they only held about 70 minutes of music. That was in the bad old days before the wireless MP3 nano-players that let us now carry our entire music library in a shirt pocket and to update it anytime anywhere with a click of a button.

A few of you may remember the LPs. "LP" stood for Long Playing even though these humongous two-sided disks only played miserable 20 minutes of music per side. They were made of plastic and melted in the sunshine. The players were the size of a microwave oven - not exactly portable.

And only historians have even heard of 78 rpm records. They weighed a ton, were breakable like glass, spun at 78 rpm in massive machines and held less than five minutes of music per side. They sounded like someone playing music over the phone while frying bacon.

Be that as it may, I have just invested in a brand new, professional quality, 78 rpm record player. Yes, they still make them, specially for the nutty old audiophiles and collectors with nostalgia for the early twentieth century. I am not one of them. I have in my possession one single 78 rpm record and I am not likely to add to this collection of one. So what possessed me? The record happens to be the only existing copy of the only recording of my mother singing (she was a professional artist - a lyric soprano in bel canto style). It surfaced recently after decades of having been lost. I needed the player to be able to digitally remaster and transfer the recording to a suitable modern medium for distribution to the family & friends.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/19/07 (#0074)  Peace and joy

I guess if I didn't watch TV, I'd find the commercials fun also. -
The Nut

Yeah, after the 50th time they become a major pain. Yet another reason I don't watch TV... - The Ed

Peace: everybody wants it but why? For most people peace means relief from stress or suffering. Generally, peace is taken to mean freedom from troubles, freedom from threats to our well-being, freedom to be "ourselves" without fear. It does not mean "nothing happening", "absolute quiet" or "total rest". However attractive these concepts may seem to a stressed out city dweller, that kind of peace grows old quickly and does not last. To be durable and enjoyable, peace must be dynamic and eventful, with potential for change, wonder and surprise. Such peace starts with "p"and that rhymes with "t" and that stands for "trouble"...

Fact: absolute peace is found only in death. As long as we are alive our peace can only be relative. When we say we want peace what we really mean is we want a more balanced existence, better situated between order and chaos and therefore less stressful and more enjoyable. Ultimately, what we want is joy - peace is only a means toward increasing our joy.

And what is joy? To begin with, it is a conscious experience.  Specifically, it is an experience of rightness and goodness and beauty of one's own being as it is happening. An experience of the glory of it.  Whence comes this sensation? Release of serotonin and endorphins in the brain may explain the chemical mechanics behind the sensation but it does not explain the sensation itself. The brain chemistry is affected by our conscious choices and actions as well as vice versa. It is not always clear which is the chicken and which the egg. We do know, from observation, that purely chemical joy leaves us empty and unbalanced. It is unearned, stolen joy which eventually must be paid for. On the other hand, the joy that comes from our conscious choices and actions builds, sustains and guides us.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/18/07 (#0073) If you knew Dante like I know Dante...

I am in the process of discovering Dante Alighieri and his famous (and universally unread) epic Poem, "The Divine Comedy".

The first thing you need to know is that it isn't actually a comedy. But never mind. Another thing you need to know (and that accounts for why hardly anybody actually reads the Poem) is that to have any clue as to what it is all about you need to get to know Dante personally, his life, his times, his friends and enemies, his mind. Also you need to have read Homer's "Illiad" and "Odyssey" and especially Virgil's "Aeneid". It would also help to be thoroughly familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, ancient and medieaval history, Aristotle's writings, the Christian Bible and the writings of Thomas Aquinas and other church fathers. Thus equipped, and with some additional help by a qualified Dantologist, you should be in a position to properly appreciate and enjoy the Poem, provided you read Italian fluently. (The Poem is essentially untranslateable into English in a form that does justice to Dante's terza rima).

That said, it is possible, especially for the readers of Italian, to thoroughly enjoy certain poetic and dramatic passages throughout the Poem without any preparation at all. Often the language just carries you away (the most recent English translation by Hollander is best). And that's how most people read the Poem.

But there's much more to it. It is nothing less than a visionary political, social, philosophical and religious manifesto intended, in all seriousness, to change the world. Dante wanted to bring about a global government of law and order, rational but informed by faith, in which universal peace would be possible and the highest human destiny could be attained. He lived in a world of discord, corruption, and personal ambition. He felt he knew what had gone wrong and how to fix it. He was a man of considerable status in his world - he would be listened to. And that's why he wrote the "Commedia", to put art, beauty and reason in the service of addressing what he saw as disastrous social disintegration.

The remarkable thing is that his arguments, so elegantly presented, are as cogent and applicable today as they were in his times. Dante was the first modern poet/politician/philosopher. He saw the problems of his day (no different in essence from ours today) very clearly. His envisioned solutions, allowing for certain biases and ignorance of facts, are rational, practical, and, given sufficient good will, doable. He believed in separation of church and state but believed in their mutual cooperation and equality of their role in people's lives, each in it's own sphere. A third element of the unified world government, in his view, must be reason and science, playing their own role in people's lives. All three elements - law, reason and faith - would be mutually infomed by each other forming a solid basis for prosperity for the human race. Sounds about right to me.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/17/07 (#0072) The frantic flash-by

I don't watch TV for a number of reasons: a) I don't get any TV signal down here in Possum Hollow, b) on the odd occasions when I did spend some time watching TV (somebody else's) I rarely saw anything worth watching (except the commercials - they're fun), c) I get all the entertainment I can handle from other sources that suit me better; and there are several other reasons besides. One of them, the subject of today's dissertation, is the frantic pace and the split second duration of events presented on the TV screen.

It has been alleged that nobody ever lost money underestimating the average intelectual powers of the TV audience. Judging from the display time of particular sound & sight bites and the rate at which the audience is bombarded (or, rather, machine gunned) with such ultra-brief audio-visual clips, the producers and directors of most of the TV shows must be estimating the attention span and the capacity for comprehension of the TV audience to be about that of a three year old.

Except in the case of the talking heads, no time at all is allowed for the absorption of and the reflection on what has been seen. Indeed, it's hard to tell what has been seen. However, since it is usually some stereotypical/iconic image referring to a culturally embedded pre-digested idea, it doesn't matter if you did not see it in detail as long as you caught the general idea. Moving right along to What's Next, no thinking is required, indeed, no thinking is allowed. Knee-jerk reaction is all that is expected.

It appears much of TV programming consists of subliminal messages aimed at the primitive subconscious. Presence of analytical reasoning is not presumed, and, frankly, not desired. (It tends to interfere with the unbridled consumerism which drives the TV industry). As a born and bred rationalist, I can't deal with these rapid fire images flashing by me before I can begin to critically grasp them with my mind. It is extremely frustrating. And that's one of the reasons I don't watch TV.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/15/07 (#0072) 600,000 words is not enough

Empower. Embrace. Embezzle. Engrave. Enfeeble. Enchant. All of them transitive verbs indicating action by the subject on the object. Not so "enjoy". To enjoy something does not involve acting on the object. It is a curious case, going against its etymology which would suggest that to enjoy something should mean "to imbue something with joy". As in "to enjoy oneself", the only instance where "enjoy" is used in its expected sense.

I think the English language would be enriched if the verb "to enjoy" were available for use in its etymologically natural sense. To enjoy the world would mean to fill the world with joy. On the other hand, the current vernacular use is also useful and I would not want to loose it. But having one word do double duty could be confusing so I propose a new word, "injoy", for the properly transitive sense of "enjoy". Thus, grandparents could both enjoy and injoy their grandkids.

With "injoy" in the vocabulary, we can formulate a life philosophy such as "injoy others as you would enjoy (injoy) yourself" or make such observations as "it is easier to injoy others if one also enjoys them". We could dispense with the overused and vague word "love" in many instances where the accurate thing to say is that one is injoying someone. In general, it would make clear thinking about relationships easier.

"Injoy" is only the second new English word I have proposed so far. My first one was "sinefine", a noun, meaning "an endless task", like that of Sisyphus, e.g. the war in Iraq.  

Until Monday,

Paul W.

09/14/07 (#0070) Honor and glory

Honor and glory are evidently two good things desired by a lot of people. Republicans and democrats, liberals - oops, I mean progressives - and conservatives, religious and scoffers, plutocrats and publicans, poets and pragmatists, engineers and artists, citizens and illegal immigrants, men and women, young and old, all of them are proportionately represented among those who either actively seek honor and glory or who, though passive, secretly or openly wish that honor and glory would be offered to them.

This is wonderful. Here we have a truly common cause we can all get behind, without a hint of partisanship: to increase supply of honor and glory so that every resident of this country can be assured of his or her share. So let's get right down to business. Ummm... where exactly are the major sources of honor and glory located? How is this stuff packaged and shipped? What is it, anyway?

Good question. Honor is something people (mostly men) once would kill to defend (in some regions of the world they still do). It is a fiction, maintained at any cost, that one is good and right and pure and important. It is a touching tribute to our ardent desire to escape our animal nature and become angelic. Most people will actually act "honorably" much of the time, so committed they are to maintaining their honor.

Glory is more difficult to define. Splendor, spectacle, celebrity, fame, renown, praise are some of the ideas that "glory" evokes. It is a kind of public celebration of oneself. Presence and participation of public is key (which may explain why God created us). Walt Whitman would probably define glory as "enjoying oneself and being enjoyed by the world".

It is my contention that when one is enjoying oneself and being enjoyed by the world one's honor is automatically established and intact. And that all it takes to protect it is to continue to enjoy oneself and to continue being enjoyed by the world. In other words, honor is a natural by-product of leading a glorious life (as here defined).

Unitl tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/13/07 (#0069) The Nutshell walks into a bar

A priest, a rabbi, a minister, a female sex worker and a talking horse walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the lot and says: "What is this? Some kind of a joke?"

One of the disadvantages of living a solitary life (not sufficient to offset the many advantages) is that I don't get to hear any new jokes. Not that there are any, but people do keep coming up with new twists on the old ones. There's no use getting the jokes off the Internet - if they're on the Internet everybody's already seen them. I suppose one could make up one's own jokes, but that takes a certain talent. Like the man who when asked "Do you play the violin?" answered "I don't know, I never tried"  I'm not sure I have what it takes.

A sandwich walks into a bar and the bartender says: "Sorry, we don't serve food here". (Yeah, I know, an ancient chestnut, but still funny).

Technically, I know what makes a joke funny. One half is the surprise, one half is incongruity, and one half is how you tell it, and please don't bother me about the math (there are three kinds of people: those who can count and those who can't). Yet, between knowing and actually succeeding there lies an infinity...

An etude walks into a bar and the bartender says: "You look like a minor to me".

I made that one up. Hope you haven't heard it already...

So, until tomorrow, how many light bulbs does it take to screw in a bartender?

Paul W.

09/12/07 (#0068) My name, my self

Bear with me. This is going to be complicated.

The two great western cultures of antiquity, Greece and Rome, bequeathed to the posterity, among other things, their alphabets. In Eastern Europe the Greek alphabet was adapted to local linguistic needs and became the several varieties of the Cyrillic. In Western Europe the Roman alphabet was adopted. It too was adapted to local needs and currently exists in several varieties which look nearly alike but are not. One of the varieties is the English alphabet familiar to the readers of The Nutshell. Another variety is the Polish alphabet which (except to a few) is not. And there are many others. All these alphabets derived from the Latin one look very similar but differ in particulars like pronounciation of certain letters or letter combinations, and many have special letters of their own. For example, in the Polish alphabet "w" is pronounced like the English "v", "v"does not exist, and the sound of the English "w" is represented by a letter which does not exist in the English alphabet: an "l" with a slash through it. In addition Polish uses eye-hurting (for the English speakers) combinations of letters like "sz" to designate sounds not covered by single letters, in this case a hard "sh". Etc.

When someone from Eastern Europe whose native language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, or, for that matter someone from Greece arrives in an English speaking country, his or her name is transliterated into the English alphabet to yield a close facsimile of the sound of the original. A classic case is that of Mr. Tchaikovski (sometimes transliterated as "Chaikofski"). Pity though a visitor from one of the European countries which uses a version of the Latin alphabet. Because the name seems to be spelled in the familiar English alphabet there is no incentive to transliterate. Instead it gets mispronounced. Grossly. Occasionally an immigrant does actually transliterate the original name into an English equivalent, which makes it look funny and unrecognizeable to his family back in the old country but at least assures correct pronounciation by the English speakers.

Which is only the beginning of my woes. My name is Stanislaw Wladyslaw Paul Wyszkowski. It says so in my passport and on my U.S. Citizenship certificate. That is my full legal name. It is actually misspelled, but never mind, it's close enough. It is an English-Polish hybrid, "Paul" being purely English. I added Paul because my first name is problematic for English speakers and I hate "Stan" as a nickname, or, worse yet, "Stanley" which is definitely not my name. So I became Paul and I am known by one and all as Paul Wyszkowski (pronounced "Vishkofski"). I sign myself informally as Paul Wyszkowski and formally as S. W. Paul Wyszkowski. The latter is the name I provide for all official documentation. Or used to. Until 9/11.

Since 9/11, U.S. authorities require that my full legal name be used on all government issued documents. S. W. Paul Wyszkowski doesn't cut it anymore. It has to be Stanislaw Wladyslaw Paul Wyszkowski, or, as a compromise, Stanislaw W. P. Wyszkowski. On my driver's license I am "Wyszkowski, Stanislaw Wladyslaw" - they ran out of room for "Paul". This is fine for driving in Poland, but in this country I am Paul and have been for decades. When I go for medical treatment, again, paperwork has to have my full legal name, and the next thing that happens is the nurse is calling me "Stan".  9/11 has changed my name and there's nothing I can do about it except perhaps formally change my name to plain Paul Wyszkowski (or perhaps Paul Vishkofski). This I do not want to do because I like my name as it is, both the way it looks and the way it sounds. I am named after my grandfather and my father and I value that.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/11/07 (#0067) I remember 9/11

On this date in 2001 I happened to be in Manhattan. I was too far uptown to see the towers directly but I watched on television the smoking tower and the second plane plowing into the other one. Later I watched one then the other tower sink out of the Manhattan skyline.

I had intended to leave New York on that day by train but all traffic was frozen - nobody was going anywhere that night. Next morning, subways were running almost normally except that some lines terminated just before reaching Ground Zero and others were re-routed around it. I got to the Penn Station with no trouble. Leaving New York was actually easy. The traffic flow was all one way - out. There was no incoming traffic. I did not need my ticket, all trains leaving New York were free (I kept it as a souvenir).

On the way out I gazed at the suddenly changed Manhattan skyline with wonder and dread. It was a clear and sunny day and the hard-edged lucidity of the image made it look surreal.  But it did not dissolve like a dream it seemed to be - it remained clear and steady, coldly insisting on its reality.

I have been through many air raids during the WWII. I watched bombs being released directly overhead and falling all around me. I was blasted by an imploding window just as I was sitting down to dinner. None of that had the shock value of the 9/11 attack which came in midst of peace, literally out of the blue, and almost 3000 people perished all at once in downtown Manhattan.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/10/07 (#0066) Iraq and terrorism - a matter of time scales.

The intentions, as usual, were good, but the combination of Texas chutzpa, deliberate ignorance and self-delusional contempt for the enemy turned these good intentions into paving stones for the hell of Iraq. Bush wanted to change, once and for all, the political geography of the region and he did. Mission accomplished. History will credit him with that much.

The general consensus is that the American intervention in Iraq was botched. The opinion is divided on the question whether it was necessary to begin with. But that's all history. The die has been cast. The real question is what now? What is the probable future of Iraq and the region?

If we go far out enough into the future, say a hundred years from now, it's likely that the effect of the American intervention will have been negligible, that the fate of the region will have ended up pretty much where it would have ended anyway, without the intervention. The intervention may have accelerated - or perhaps delayed - the evolutionary process somewhat but after a century this will be immaterial.

What's in it for America? Here we have to distinguish between anti-terrorist activities and world-changing ambitions. It's true that changing the world is one way to control terrorism, but it is not necessarily the most practical way, especially in the short term. Changing the world is a long term proposition - it's not a game for the impatient or the adventurous. Terrorism, on the other hand, is a clear and present danger and something does have to be done about it immediately and continuing in the foreseeable future. So even though these two objectives may have a common purpose the time scales are vastly different.

Stabilization of Iraq is decidedly a long term proposition. America deludes itself if it thinks it will happen within a decade - it will take generations of enforced peace. In the meantime, terrorists lurk everywhere. America has two tigers by the tail. Fortunately, it can expect some real help from the rest of the world with one of them. The other one is part of the Bush legacy and America owns it.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/09/07 (#0065) The ultimate evil

As I wend my way through my cluttered life I keep coming across stuff whose only meaning to me lay in my anticipation of my daughter's enjoyment of it (or perhaps amusement by it) in some indefinite future - even if only after my death. Well, she's gone, and so is the significance of much of the stuff of my life. This simplifies my life considerably, which is good, but it still feels like a loss. A loss of a potential for joy.

In my cosmology, the greatest evil is the destruction (accidental or intentional) of the potential for joy. Natural death and decay following loss of usefulness and of capacity for joy is a blessing (we'll deal with the meaning of "blessing" in a future Nutshell). But cutting off of a freshly budding and promising new life, or destruction of a consciousness capable of experiencing joy and of giving joy to others - that is the ultimate evil, tragic if accidental and unnecessary, monstrous if intentional.

There is no way of removing the accidental from life - it is the inevitable consequence of the absolute uncertainty inherent in the mechanism of the evolution of the universe. It is this uncertainty that makes life interesting because incompletely predictable, and opens up unexpected opportunities for conscious exploitation to our advantage. It also, on occasion, kills.

When chaos, which is the opposite pole to order in the cosmic scheme of becoming, predominates in the mental processes of individuals, whether because of physical inadequacy or breakdown or because of cognitive confusion, it may lead to intentional destruction of life. Ultimately, this is still an accidental evil, even though conscious choice is involved because the choice is that of an uninformed or misinformed consciousness. Hence those who deliberately spread ignorance and misinformation - i.e. liars - tend to be held in the greatest contempt by the society at large. But, of course, they also act out of ignorance. They know not what they do.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/08/07 (#0064) Meta-metaphysics

Here we've been blithely talking about metaphysics (would that be meta-metaphysics?) and I'm not sure I know what metaphysics is.  I don't know whether it's just me, but lately it seems like the "meta-" prefix is getting a lot of usage. Meta-this, meta-that, generally in the sense of one level of abstraction higher than this or that, about this or that. It would be nice if this were a grammatical rule but it isn't, at least not in the case of metaphysics, or metamorphosis or metaphor or metempsychosis and innumerable other meta-somethings each of which seems to use the prefix in its own unique sense, pretty much ignoring its original Greek meaning of "after" in the sense of "what follows after doing or saying something".

There is one small branch of metaphysics, better known as the philosophy of physics or, more generally, of science, which is about science. But in common usage metaphysics covers a broad range of subjects: transcendence, ontology (what can be known), epistemology (how did it all get started and what's it for?), and a hodge podge of other approaches to making sense of the world. It's clearly a species of philosophy, evidently specializing in existential questions (doesn't philosophy in general?). Aristotle coined the term (it was the title of one of his treatises) but I have yet to discover what exactly he meant by it. As different as "physics" of his day was from what it is now, it was, then as now, a study of the cosmos, and I suspect Aristotle used "meta" to mean something like "critical thoughts on the nature of [studying the cosmos]". Gotta admit, "meta" is pithier.

I don't think I'm any better informed regarding the current scope and nature of metaphysics than when I started this. I guess I clarified for myself that there are all kinds of metaphysics out there, and to avoid confusion I shouldn't use the word to refer to the existential musings in The Nutshell. A rose by any other name, or even better, nameless, will suffice.

Until tomorrow (yes, tomorrow),

Paul W.

09/07/07 (#0063) In praise of metaphysics

"Metaphysics is good", says Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, "if it contributes to a good life. Otherwise, forget it." As readers of The Nutshell have no doubt noticed, The Nutshell tends to veer often into subjects metaphysical. The question arises, is that good? Has Nutshell metaphysics contributed to anyone's good life or is it mere dross?

I don't know about you, but the metaphysical musings found in The Nutshell contribute to my good life in a number of ways:

1. I'm having fun - playing with ideas is my favorite source of entertainment.
2. I'm learning about the nature of thought and of the objects of thought, which can't be bad...
3. I'm building a rational basis for my conscious choices.
4. I'm creating an explanation for the world of my experience that I can believe in.
5. I enjoy the occasional applause from the readers or at least their pertinent (or impertinent) comments.
6. Probing the mysteries of being is a source of endless fascination to me and my chief hobby.

I could probably think of a few other ways metaphysics makes my life good but these will do for now.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/06/07 (#0062) Style and substance

Shopping for a new Art-Cart. The one I have (1997 Ford Escort Wagon) has served me well carting art for years but no longer inspires my confidence. Running well is not enough - I need the assurance that it will continue to run reliably in the foreseeable future and I just don't have it. There are all kinds of little indications that it is getting tired, none of them of great import individually but collectively foreboding troubled times to come. With winter coming, I decided the time has come to upgrade.

Finding a suitable car isn't what it used to be - now you can peruse every vehicle for sale within a specified radius of your home with just a few clicks of the mouse.  And you can find out everything there is to know about every one of them with just a few more clicks. Thus, without budging from my comfortable chair in front of the computer I have determined that a Subaru Legacy Wagon would constitute a reasonable upgrade from the Escort. It is just a little more spacious, just a little more powerful, and it is at least Escort's equal in terms of reputation for reliability. And it has one thing Escort doesn't have: an all wheel drive. This is going to come in handy this winter, global warming notwithstanding.

What everybody evidently hates about the Legacy is the styling - namely it looks exactly like what it is: a station wagon. I doesn't look like a UFO. Which may account for the fact that it is one of the models least likely to be stolen. On the other hand, people love driving it which has got to count for something.

And I know exactly where I can get a good deal on one...

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

08/05/07 (#0061) What am I worth?

Re: Theology. I think the simple answer is this: Theology is about faith, not reason. Science is about reason, not faith.
There are "people of faith" and there are "people of reason". Trying to understand one world (faith) through means of the other (reason) can't work. I think that instead of needing any faith at all, it's best to be a skeptical optimist or an optimistic realist.  - David

Reason and observation have their limits. Choices that life requires force us to make, often unconsciously, leaps of faith (non-rational assumptions) to bridge the unavoidable gaps in our rational understanding of reality. Of course, faith and reality cannot contradict each other - if they do, there is either incorrect observation or incorrect belief, or both. - the Ed.

In one of The Nutshells I said I considered myself a wealthy man. And I do. But wealth is not the same as worth. What am I worth? What am I offered, in the free market, for Paul W.? Hmmm.... no takers, evidently not at any price. How about 50 cents? No?

Sigh... How humbling. I know all the stuff I have is worth more than 50 cents, but me, personally? It seems I am a liability not an asset of my estate. Having stuff has not added a red cent to my worth.

Nevertheless, I refuse to believe I am totally worthless - not totally. I have friends who think (possibly mistakenly) that being my friends is worth it. Their assessment of my worth is based on what they have received from me, what I have been able to give them. Here, then, is the secret of personal worth: it is measured not by what I have but what I have given and can give. It is little enough, but it's not nothing - I am not worthless.

On that happy note, until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/04/07 (#0060) The eye of the beholder

In the old saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" the eye is not, as is commonly (and unwittingly) supposed, a metaphor for the beholder's mind. The saying is more literal than that - "the eye" stands specifically for the sense of sight (and more generally for critical evaluation. So, to begin with, two elements (not one) are necessary for perception of beauty: the sensory experience and the intellectual/emotional judgement. The sensory experience contributes one of the two essential elements in the sensation of beauty - it is not the mind alone that makes an arbitrary decision regarding presence or absence of beauty. The sense of sight is the arena where the two meet and interact. In this sense beauty is indeed formed in the "eye" of the beholder.

And what are the criteria for perception of beauty? They vary from beholder to beholder depending on the intellectual/emotional "filters" (prejudices) present and the degree of attention given to the experience but in principle they are the same for all beholders. Specifically, the beauty criteria are balance, symmetry and grace.

Balance refers to the proportion of order and chaos in the experienced sensation. Too much order and the experience becomes too predictable and boring. Too much chaos and it becomes unintelligible. There is an "optimum" point of balance between the two which makes the experience interesting and potentially meaningful.

Symmetry refers to the repetition of certain elements or themes of a complex experience (often at multiple levels of its organization) as well as the balancing of these repetitions so as to achieve an apparently meaningful (intentional) structure.

Grace refers to the economy and effectiveness of this structure, to how well all its various aspects are integrated into one distinctive and harmonious whole.

There is in our consciousness an intrinsic capability for appreciation of balance, symmetry and grace. It varies from individual to individual in subtlety and intensity, depending on the degree of complexity of consciousness. But it is that capacity for appreciation that ultimately defines beauty.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

09/02/07 (#0059) Theology: just a mind game?

This week The Nutshell is taking Monday off so to make up for it here is a special Sunday edition.

Theology - a suitable Sunday topic - covers a lot of sins. First of all, while the word does refer to one specific area of study - nature of God - the results of this study do not form a single coherent body of knowledge. They vary all over the lot, often in direct contradiction with one another, because different theologians use different sources of data for their studies.

All other sciences use only observational data. Honest theology uses observational data, but it also uses various interpretations of various texts believed to be sacred and trustworthy containers of absolute truth. As such, they naturally take precedence over observation which, admittedly, is incomplete and imprecise and therefore not absolutely trustworthy. Direct conflict between observation and sacred text is not uncommon. One way theology deals with such conflict is to say that it is only apparent and potentially resolvable in the light of complete understanding (which may be unattainable). More serious are disagreements among the various sacred texts themselves. Theologies vary according to which set of sacred texts is accepted as authoritative.

In any case, study of God is a tricky thing. Yes, much can be reasonably inferred about nature of God, assuming, of course, that God exists. The question of God's existence is a field of study in itself, one closer to other sciences in that it must argue strictly from observational data in order not to presuppose what is to be proven. (The phenomenon of consciousness is the most fruitful source of theological observational data). But the question remains: how valid is any process of logical reasoning about God, a "being" (a dubious label for the source of all being) who transcends reason and is essentially beyond understanding? The Christian solution is Jesus, God reduced to the human scale, the understandeable face of God, the point of entry for human relationship to God. Hindus split up God into numerous personnae each individually more accessible than the whole. Ancients dealt, by preference, with a panoply of very human and understandeable gods. Even though they had some vague notions of a super-god that started it all they hardly gave it a thought. Catholics have a whole heavenful of saints and, of course, Virgin Mary, to act as channels between God and humanity, and even between Jesus and humanity. On the other hand, Buddhists try to tune in to Godhood directly, but not by way of reasoning. There is no Buddhist theology - there is only the Buddhist experience. Judaism, too, tends to be experience based with special reverence for traditional teachings.

Reason tells us is that there is no way to understand God. However, there are evidently human scale ways of experiencing God. Which leaves me wondering whether theology is just a mind game.

Until Tuesday,

Paul W.

09/01/07 (#0058) Love: Greeks had four words for it

Seriously, what is love? What does it mean "to fall in love"? What does it mean "to love"? What does it mean when you tell someone "I love you"? What does it mean when we're told "God loves us"? What does it mean "to love God"? What does it mean to love a thing or an action? Is there such a thing as "self-less love"? Why do we love? Is love a feeling or an act of will?

It hardly needs pointing out that none of these questions have a single definitive answer. Love comes in many varieties and shades. The Greeks distinguished between three kinds of love: eros, charitas and agape , which roughly translate into English as infatuation, kindness,and devotion respectively. They had yet another word, "philia", which meant strong liking for or obsession with someone or something. In English we often use the word "love" for philia as in "I love ice cream" or "I love to ski". 

In the case of love between two human beings eros, charitas, agape and philia become so intricately intertwined that the English language doesn't even try to untangle them - it's all just "love". Which is a pity, since if we had a convenient way of speaking clearly in terms of various combinations of eros, charitas, agape and philia in human relationships we might avoid a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of grief.

Note that eros and philia are radically different kinds of "love" from charitas and agape. The first two are intrinsically selfish, having to do with satisfaction of personal desires. The last two are concerned only with the other. Charitas is the looking after the needs of the others, and agape is the giving of oneself freely and unconditionally to the other. Charitas and agape are inspired by a feeling but are sustained indefinitely by an act of will. They are a matter of conscious choice. Eros and philia are driven by unconscious desires and last only as long as those desires.

The interesting question is why do we consciously choose to love others? There is the evolutionary explanation that certain forms of altruism are effective strategies for survival of the species. But this has nothing to do with conscious choice. When consciousness enters love, it raises it to a whole new level in which the relationship between the two persons transcends mere survival of the species considerations. Rather we have here a different kind of evolution, a creation of a higher consciousness from the conjugation of the two hearts and minds, capable of experiencing greater joy than either alone.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.