INDEX OF TITLES  (0134 - 0159 December 2007)
(NOTE: keywords which appear in the title are not repeated)

      0134 - What is a watch?   [culture, decoration, design, fashion, functionality, pretense, status, style, value, wealth]
      0135 - Notice of cancellation   [mechanics of life]
      0136 - Changing weather   [adaptation, change, climate, geophysics, population, quality of life]
      0137 - Truth and consequences   [Barack Obama, candidacy, candidness, Dick Cheney, elections, politics]
      0138 - Making Art exclusive for fun & profit   [Art history, Artist, brand, business, celebrity, critique, entertainment, fashion, manufacture, play, process, quality]
      0139 - On being nice and candid   [angelic, animal, balance, freedom, honesty, hypocrisy, limits, politeness, self-control, vulgarity]
      0140 - Presents, gifts and transactions   [celebration, christianity, giving, humankindness, philantropy, season]
      0141 - A picture is worth a hell of a lot more than 1000 words   [effect, expression, image making, public, work, writing]
      0142 - In praise of electric guitar   [design, history, music, musical instruments]
      0143 - Confessions of an anti-masochist   [enjoyment, exercise, gymnastics, joy, meaning, pain, self-esteem, suffering]
      0144 - Taking the leap into the unknown    [courage, fear, future, not knowing, probability, risk]
      0145 - And the greatest of these is...    [choice, desire, failure, faith, fear, hope, intentionality, love]
      0146 - Love and economics    [goods, individual, justice, law, meaning, need, physics, self, significance, whole]
      0147 - Nothing at all    [eternity, existence, experience, mystery, non-existence, time, universe]
      0148 - Understanding: balancing experience and abstraction   [choice, detail, future, meaning, pattern, reality]
0149 - Our ideas, our selves   [belief, brain, gestalt, homo sapiens, individualization, persona, potential]
      0150 - Language, logic and hard boiled eggs   [argument, consistency, exact definitions, formality, lies, rhetoric, rules, symbols,  truth, utility]
      0151 - Enjoying life, really   [bliss, detachment, heroism, joy,  quality of life, self-worth, suffering, value, wholeness]
      0152 - War on poverty   [desire, deprivation, excess, happiness, Jesus, joy, possessions, powerlessness, sufficiency, wealth]
      0153 - Vivaldi unseasoned   [absolute, abstract, enjoyment, music, pattern, representation, structure]
      0154 - Merry Christmas!   [celebration, Christianity, commercialism, Jesus, joy, rekigion, secularism, society, winter solstice]
      0155 - Kids vs. Authority   [consciousness, cosmology, critique, fantasy, God, literature, religion, theology]
      0156 - Are we mostly good or mostly bad?   [demographics, evil, good, intentionality, purpose, right and wrong]
      0157 - A uniquely human ability   [application, choice, consciousness, intentionality, meaning, talent, understanding]
      0158 - Creating light from darkness   [appreciation,delusion, deprivation, desperation, escape, faith, hatred, holiness, hope, injustice, pain, rage]
      0159 - The shaping of things to come   [change, choice, consciousness, desire, future, intentionality]


12/31/07 (#0159) The shaping of things to come

On the last day of this solar cycle, armed with our plans, projections and resolutions, we face the next one with hopeful optimism.

No, we have no idea what 2008 will bring, but that is exactly as it should be. Because we are not passive cogs in a pre-set cosmic clockwork we can choose to be what in our hearts we truly want to be: adventurers, discoverers, and shapers of the future. We have the power to do this and we can be confident that, to a greater or lesser extent, we can succeed in reshaping the world closer to our heart's desire.

But the power to shape the future emerges from the possibility and the necessity to change. That means that while we live there can never be an end to our journey. There is no safe harbor where we can arrive to remain indefinitely. Things change and we must keep moving on. The world is ever new. That is the challenge and the beauty of life.

Our hopes and fears hang on the fact that our future does not yet exist. However, its seeds have already been sown and they will sprout and grow in the environment of our conscious intentionality. Since our intentions reflect, however imperfectly, the transcendental desire that underlies all existence, this has to be, on the average, more for better than for worse, ultimately favoring the tendency for the world to evolve, however painfully and erratically, toward the possibility of greater joy and understanding.

The Nutshell wishes all its readers a meaningful and joyful New Year 2008. And it's taking a few days off.

Back in the near future,

Paul W.

12/29/07 (#0158) Creating light from darkness

Sadly, there are people born into unrelenting deprivation, hardship, pain, hostility and injustice, who in course of their lifetimes never experience anything else. One hopes theirs are rare and exceptional circumstances, but I'm guessing there are probably millions of them on this planet. (I exclude specifically from this number those who, without justification, only imagine themselves to be victims of such a fate - and there are many).

The natural human response to endless denying and thwarting of human potential is a varying mix of dull desperation, bitter resentment and hatred, and revolutionary rage. But there is yet another mode of response which can be characterized as escapist, utopian, delusional, foolish or holy: firm faith in and hope for a future release from misery and restitution to full humanity in another life, another world.

This is where faith becomes a positive force for improving chances of survival of an opressed people by providing a basis for optimism where, realistically, there is none. Leavened with love, such irrational faith has power to transform an existential hell into an opportunity for self-realization through service in relieving as much as possible the suffering of one's fellows in misfortune. It may not only help people endure, it may even make it possible for them to bootstrap themselves out of an otherwise desperate situation.

Does this mean that in a world of peace and plenty there is no need for such faith? I'll tell you when we get there. In any case, enjoyment of life is in the appreciation thereof. And appreciation of life is effectively the realization of faith in the possibility of joy.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

12/28/07 (#0157) A uniquely human ability

(Re TN #156)  I found it odd to read an opinion piece that at no point references the teachings on the subject by the any of the various world views that are often named (or alluded to by way of referring to particular characters/concepts associated with a certain world view) as if some familiarity with them (whether elementary or developed) were sufficient for keeping them in a toy box. - Charles

I was thinking out of the toy box to see if there was a purely rational way to arrive at the answer. My only point: there isn't. You have to make some assumptions, i.e., make a leap of faith. No disrespect intended by the allusion to the Judgement Day. Santa, of course, belongs in the toy box, And I hope you did not think "the Decider" was anyone other than our inerrant Dubya. - the Ed

We are all "differently abled". Some people can remember what they see in minutest detail. Some can draw the images they see or remember with great precision. Some have an exact sense of how their bodies are moving in space and time. Some can vividly sense the feelings and beliefs of others. Some can effectively express their feelings and beliefs to others. Some can create complex aural or visual structures in their minds. Some can quickly grasp functional intricacies of mechanisms or organizations. Some can deftly break down most convoluted concepts to their simplest components. And so on.

It's all wonderful and it all means nothing. None of our abilities have any significance in themselves. Not until they are applied to specific purposes. Only when we actually use our abilities to achieve our intended objectives do our lives become meaningful.

And this is the most wonderful ability of all that all humans possess - to be able to create meaning by choosing to act knowing why.  

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/27/07 (#0156) Are we mostly good or mostly bad?

No one, except Santa Claus, keeps statistics on who's been good and who's been bad. Besides, Santa's data are limited to small kids and, in any case, not available.

Yes, we do have crime statistics but let's not kid ourselves - not all wrong-doers wind up on the police record and many good-doers do. Technically, we're all wrong-doers - who has not screwed up and more than once? (I mean other than the Decider). But I'm not concerned about unintentional screw-ups. I'd like to see the statistics on who's really bad, like, for example, the people who enjoy the misfortune of others, seek to cause it deliberately, and profit by it. Or those who deliberately ignore cries for help.

I suppose we'll know exactly on the Judgement Day. In the meantime, however, the fascinating question "are we mostly good or mostly bad?" remains unanswered for lack of hard evidence. We can speculate though.

If the universe has a purpose, by default its purpose has to be good (it's impossible to have a bad purpose if you're all there is). Since we're the product of the evolution of the universe, we must be essentially and therefore mostly good. At least, that's got to be the intention of a purposeful universe.

If the universe has no purpose the question is meaningless to begin with. All that we can ask in this case is "why do we sometimes feel good and sometimes bad even though there is no such thing as good and bad?". We can ask that but, of course, in a purposeless universe there would be no answer. Indeed, we might well ask how is it possible to even ask such a question. To which there is also no answer.

Actually, being able to ask the question, or any question, kind of points to this being a purposeful universe we're in. That's hopeful. We may be rotten, but probably not to the core...

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/26/07 (#0155) Kids vs. the Authority

(Re: TN#153) Whether music creates images or not is a playful concept.  I’ve been involved in the world of animation and do honour it. It does, however, have some mischievous side effects.  Many of the better known musical pieces from the classical and romantic repertoire come to me with a vision of Mickey Mouse on skates or Bugs Bunny conducting with his ears flapping.  I never know in what dignified setting the zing of the violin will come with a clear impression of a duck chasing chipmunks. Fortunately genius has a way of surviving the jests of history.  Thanks for keeping the Nutshell on the hearth for our enjoyment. - TABS

And, of course, Rossini's orchestral accelerandos were written for Bugs Bunny who brought out their ultimate glory. - the Ed.

God-bashing is in vogue these days, even in children's literature. Prime example: Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. The first part ("The Golden Compass") has been recently made into a movie which stirred up a bit of a storm among the faithful. I decided to find out what all the fuss is about so I read the book and saw the movie.

My first question: whose dark materials? Pullman offers no clue. His muddled theology (which involves angels, ghosts, specters, witches, and a host of other intelligent beings, including bears and a kind of sparkling pixie dust) implies some kind of unacknowledged ultimate Consciousness underpinning the workings of the universe. Whatever this Consciousness is, it is not the biblical Lord God a.k.a. Elohim, Jehovah, or, as the "Magisterium" (a villainous simulacrum of the Roman Catholic Church) calls him, the Authority.

Pullman's problem with the biblical God (whom he reduces to just another ambitious angel and mortal to boot) is evident in the sobriquet "the Authority". Pullman believes that authority should derive solely from observed facts on the ground combined with one's own desires. Fair enough. However, the accuracy of our observations is only approximate, and it is rarely if ever clear to us what it is we really desire. Knowing the desire of the Consciousness responsible for the existence of the universe (if that were possible) might provide an interesting reference point. To his credit, Pullman does intimate that the essential desire of the ultimate Consciousness (not specifically referred to but vaguely associated with the mysterious "Dust" that drifts throughout the trilogy) may be the joy of being.

On philosophical grounds, my objection to Pullman's epic is that it is half-baked and confusing. It's fine to question authority (that is the prerogative of youth) but it should lead to some credible alternatives. Pullman doesn't offer any alternative philosophical framework worth hanging your hat on. The reader is left in a fantastical muddle that does not point to any realistic approaches to optimism and enjoyment of life. The work has been called "heartless" by critics. I don't think it's fatally harmful to young inquiring minds, but it's not helpful.

On literary grounds, I object to the way the plot frequently depends on contrived artificialities and I object to the multitude of inconsistencies and loose ends in the story. The necessity for some of the episodes is not evident. The ending is unconvincingly contrived. And why Lyra, the spunky 13 year old heroine, is so crucial to the destiny of the universe is never explained. 

On the other hand, characters and settings are well imagined, especially the unforgettable Mrs. Coulter, the archvillain of the piece, and the story is richly allegorical and multilayered. The movie captures the atmosphere of the book, but adheres only loosely to the story line. Even so, to follow what's going on you must have read the book.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/23/07 (#0154) Merry Christmas!

Around 200 AD (or CE if you prefer) the date for celebration of the birth of Jesus was established as December 25, nine months after the feast of Anunciation (March 25). The merging of the Nativity Day with the winter solstice may have been merely coincidental but it was certainly significant. The result is that, like it or not, Christmas is both a Christian and a secular holiday. Celebration of winter solstice is an ancient tradition whose origins are lost in the mist in time and which is still going strong today and will likely continue as long as the earth revolves in its orbit around the sun. It resonates deeply and primally with the human nature. As a religious celebration Christmas both co-opts and competes with that seasonal burst of primal exhuberance. Everybody celebrates the Christmas/New Year's holiday season which is a distraction to Christians trying to keep Christ in Christmas. On the other hand, the renewal of the life cycle which comes with lengthening days is an appropriate metaphor for the coming of Christ.

That's just the way it is. There is no war on Christmas but neither do Christians have an exclusive claim to it. Certainly Christians wholeheartedly participate in the secular traditions of Christmastime, merely adding (often quite superficially) a Christian viewpoint to the proceedings. For most Americans, Christian or not, Christmas is about good feelings, generosity and partying. And this is a good thing, whatever the theology behind it.

Even the commercialism of Christmas is not an unredeemable evil. Sure, it tempts us to greed and excessive materialism but it is also very much part of the celebration - it's a big winter fair and a time to renew our lives by replacing old with new or adding new options for enjoyment of life. It brightens the darkest part of the year and keeps the economy humming.  Everybody loves a fair and Christmas is the biggest one of the year. It just happens to coincide with the Nativity Day which for Christians is a special cause for celebration. Technically, their joy is much greater than that of your regular pagan celebrating the winter solstice. But in the midst of general rejoicing, it's hard to tell.

The Nutshell wishes all its readers a Very Merry Christmas. Rejoice and celebrate! Darkness gives way to light and fresh opportunities to get it right this time...

Until December 26 (the Nutshell is taking Christmas off),

Paul W.

12/22/07 (#0153) Vivaldi unseasoned

Re: TN#152 - What about the people who voluntarily choose poverty as a life-style? What about them, huh? Don't they make mockery of the war on poverty? - the Squirrel

People rarely choose absolute poverty (which is hazardous to one's health). Rather, they choose to live in near-poverty, and usually for the good reasons that such life is relatively simple, low-stress and ecologically friendly. It avoids the corrupting temptations and complications of great wealth and power. And when near-poverty is chosen rather than imposed, it can actually be freeing and empowering rather than restricting. - the Ed

There are pieces of music that drill themselves directly and irresistibly into our psyches and resonate with some elementary forces therein. Three that come immediately to mind are Bach's Toccata and Fugue, Ravel's Bolero and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. (Much of Chopin's music does this to me too but that's at least partly a matter of early childhood conditioning).

I hear all three of the above examples as absolute music, as abstract patterns in sound. One of my pet peeves is the insistence of music commentators on assigning literal imagery to the last two (Bach seems to have escaped this fate). Especially to Vivaldi's quartet of concertos misnamed "The Four Seasons".

When I first heard the Vivaldi concertos, it was a revelation and instant love (I must have been in a particularly receptive and sensitized state of mind). I delighted in and thrilled to the exhilarating architecture and the sheer originality of the sound patterns. I had absolutely no associations of any kind with any of the music. It was just a coordinated structure of wonderful abstractions signifying nothing but themselves. Then the commentators came pushing me to associate this wonder with alleged imitations of seasonal sounds and I hated it. To me there is nothing specifically spring-like about the Spring concerto or specifically summer-like about the Summer or winter-like about Winter. In fact I never know which is which when I hear them, at least not in terms of the seasons. To me, it's all highly original abstract expressionism which may hint at some kind of mysterious imagery but nothing like a literal representation of nature.

Then again, maybe it's just my Asperger's syndrome.

Until tomorrow (a Sunday Special),

Paul W.

12/21/07 (#0152) War on poverty

Jesus noted that we shall always have our poor with us. He was an expert on poverty and gave the poor perhaps the better part of his time and attention. That's where the need was greatest and his teachings had greatest resonance and effect.

But who exactly are the poor? Poverty is a relative term. To be poor in Canada or, better yet, in Scandinavia is a very different experience from being poor in India or Uganda or Kazakhstan. There are basically two kinds of definitions of poverty: objective and subjective. Objectively, in the USA anyone with an income of less than $15,000 a year (a princely sum in some countries) is considered officially poor. Generally, inability to maintain a minimal standard of living (sufficient food, adequate shelter) serves as the most conservative criterion of poverty. Even by that standard, in some countries the majority of population lives in extreme poverty.

Subjectively, we are as poor as we feel ourselves to be. Physical deprivation, where lack of necessary nutrition, inadequate protection from environment and depression are a threat to health and life, that is the rock bottom below which everyone is unquestionably poor and in need of immediate help. But once the most essential needs are met, perception of poverty depends on the discrepancy between what we want and what we have. Thus we have the poor rich who want a hundred foot yacht but can only afford a fifty foot one. There are psychological deprivations which have nothing to do with income (or may even be brought about by excessive income). People who are chronically unhappy are poor, be they bums or billionaires.

And then there are people who just barely make the ends meet who do not feel poor at all. The "I got plenty of nothing and nothing's plenty for me" types. It's not the income or possesions, it's the sense of possibility for joy in life that separates the rich from the poor.

The truly poor are the powerless, powerless because of ignorance, weakness, sickness, prejudice, persecution or natural disasters. That is where the battle lines in the war on poverty are drawn. And who is called to the battle? All of us who are not poor, because only we can fight poverty and because if we do not, poverty (and the associated evils like crime, war and economic depression) can spread like cancer and consume even the richest of us.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/21/07 (#0151) Enjoying life, really

I was going to write today about my edenic existence where all my needs are provided for with practically no effort on my part. My life is pure joy from my waking around 7 AM to my falling asleep at 3 AM. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, millions of people are suffering and dying in direst circumstances, great dramas of passion and ambition are being played out (and not just on TV and movie screens), stock markets soar and tumble, but none of it has any tangible effect on my life of serene bliss.

Then I read about Polish mountain climbers who have set themselves the goal of being first to climb the planet's 14 highest mountains in winter. They have six to go. Their leader and spiritual guide, Krzysztof Wielicki exhorts his disciples to embrace "the joy of positive suffering - because if something is easy, you will not enjoy it, really".

Damn. And here I thought I was enjoying myself. Obviously I'm not, really.

I can tell you one thing for sure: climbing Mt. Everest in winter is not my idea of positive suffering. The mere idea of it makes me shiver. There's nothing positive about it - it's negative, negative, negative. Evil, in fact.

Oh I admire greatly Wielicki's and his cadre of physical heroes' stamina, skill, determination, and commitment. Absolutely marvelous! But there is something that Wielicki did not say that struck me as a significant comment on this enterprise. What he did say was: "show me what you have done [climbing a particularly challenging peak] in winter and I'll tell you what you are worth".  What he did not say was: "what you are worth as a mountain climber".

This is not to cast doubt on the worth of these brave fellows (no women among them) as human beings. They may well be among the very finest. Their mountain climbing accomplishments certainly call for a lot of positive human qualities. But to judge them exclusively by their performance in high Himalayas in winter is, in my opinion, an affront to their wholeness as human beings.

Nevertheless, my hat off to them for having accomplished what they set out to do. That's certainly worth something in itself. What I have set out to do is to enjoy life. And I'm succeeding, Wielicki's dictum notwithstanding. That, surely, is also worth something.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/19/07 (#0150) Language, logic and hardboiled  eggs

Language is a mechanism for transmitting ideas between individuals by means of agreed upon symbols and rules. Symbols are arbitrary signs which stand for things, feelings, actions and relationships or categories of any of the above. Rules provide standard forms for arranging symbols unambiguously into sentences .

The trick is to get the parties talking to one another to agree on the symbols and rules. The only time that actually happens is in the "formal" languages used in mathematics and certain branches of philosophy.  Since in formal languages all symbols must be exactly defined and all rules exactly followed such languages are absolutely useless for everyday purposes.  In real life nothing is exact and rules are regularly broken.  In real life language is supplemented by a good deal of intuition, empathy, custom, and plain guesswork.  In the end we wind up talking past each other much of the time anyway. Misunderstanding is the norm. But where it really matters, we can get quite artful and imaginative in putting our ideas across, exploiting misunderstandings to our advantage.  It's called the art of rhetoric. Prime examples are advertising and political speeches.

Then there is logic, something we all profess to use in our arguments. Logic is part of the rules of language. It is required in the formal languages, optional (if, indeed, possible) in the vernacular. In a nutshell, logic requires that all statements made about any particular subject must be consistent with one another. If any of the statements contradict some other statements, the argument cannot, logically, be true. Unfortunately, absence of contradiction is not a proof of truth. So logic is only good for detecting lies, provided that the inconsistency is detected to begin with and that it turns our to be real and not merely apparent.

By the way, hard boiled eggs are easy to peel if you let them cool down in the water rather than taking them out while hot. See? Language does have its uses...

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

/07 (#0149)  Our ideas, our selves

People, meaning individual specimens of homo sapiens, are an unbelievably variegated lot. Other animal species, even the highest of the primates, do not show such extreme individualization. You've seen one lion, you've seen pretty much all of them. Dogs and cats do have fairly variegated personalities (and appearances) reflecting the many millennia of human tinkering with their genes. Still, a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat. But people... It has been noted on more than one occasion that it's hard to believe we all come from the same planet.

What makes us so wildly different from one another is not biology. We're all formed from essentially the same genetic mold with some variations due to error or accident. Since there are billions of us statistics assure presence among us of more or less extreme deviants from the norm but they are tiny minorities. They are not who I'm talking about. I'm talking about differences among individuals who are biologically well within the norm. What makes them often radically different is ideas.

Our brains, which include a biological universal computing machine, do not vary a lot. The hardware is standard, even the software is standard, but it's what we do with it that sets us apart. Our idea generators are capable of generating an infinity of ideas and different ideas can take us in very different directions. In so far as we act on our ideas we become products of our ideas - they shape our lives, our bodies, our understanding of ourselves and of the world. When we look into a person's face, when we look at a person in action, what we see is the effect of ideas on a malleable biological body. It's more than character, it's the whole gestalt of personhood.

Unlike other animals, we have a limitless potential for what we may become. We start our lives as undifferentiated stem cells and go on to become saints and sinners, artists and bureaucrats, builders and terrorists, faithful lovers and murderers, leaders of nations and alienated hermits, spreaders of joy and sowers of doom. The difference is only in the ideas we choose to believe.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/17/07 (#0148) Understanding: balancing experience and abstraction

The world is too much for me. I mean the planet Earth and its inhabitants. On the cosmic scale I can sort of see how the entire universe hangs together provided I don't go into the fine detail. But that's precisely the problem with the world of my immediate experience - way way too much detail. Far more than I can deal with. I can't see the forest for the trees.

Here's my problem: I am immensely curious about the world, I want to understand it as much as possible. But I can only experience an infinitesimal fraction of its totality. What I actually experience of the world is next to zip compared to all there is to experience, just on this planet.

Now it is not necessary to experience the entirety of reality to form some idea of its nature. Technically, one should be able to see the universe in a grain of sand. Practically, I need more than a crumb of silicon dioxide to get a grip on reality. How much more?

Many fat books have been written about sampling theory, statistical analysis, experimental design, and so on and so forth. That's not how it works in the real time life of a human being. We are not systematic statistical sampling machines. The world comes at us and we evaluate it on the go, we work with what we get, we don't get to design our experience as a controlled lab experiment. Later, after the fact, we may look back and try to make sense of what has happened, but however diligently we prepare for the future it is always a surprise. That's the beauty of life.

Yes, to some extent we can choose what we direct our attention to. By focusing our attention we can find out more and more about less and less. That way we wind up with a lot of dots and no way to connect them. Somebody has to stand back and see the big picture. But nobody can stand back far enough to see it all. In any case, once we step back far enough to make out some general patterns, we lose contact with what the reality feels like at the level of immediate experience. We understand without really understanding.

We cannot directly experience everything. We do have some choice in what bits of the world we wind up experiencing, what glimmers of it we may glimpse. Somehow, we have to balance our limited selective experience of the world with abstract generalities to arrive at some understanding of it without becoming victims of the "elephant syndrome" (recall the story of four blind men trying to get an idea what an elephant is like). To the extent that we can choose what we experience, if understanding is our desire, we have to choose judiciously, to maximize our information. But all we have to guide us is past experience. Educated guesses is the best we can do. And glimpses is all we get.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/15/07 (#0147) Nothing at all

Flat, featureless void. Formless. Undifferentiated. Absolutely static. The absolute nothing. The inconceivable, self-negating concept of non-existence.

If you can't wrap your mind around it, that's perfectly OK. It doesn't exist, so don't give it another thought. After all, only what actually exists matters. And there's nothing that doesn't exist. If there's something (including ideas in the mind like the idea of non-existence), it exists. End of story.

Not quite. There is a way in which that formless void "exists" and not just as an abstract idea. It is the median or the equilibrium plane of the dynamic distortions that make up what exists. The phenomena of the world of experience are constructed from cyclic excursions from that virtual zero plane, as if it were a vibrating membrane, vibrating in a highly complex, everchanging mode with multiple interacting wave patterns whose various resonances form the objects of experience.

If we added up all the peaks and valleys of those complex dynamic wave patterns that make up the world of our experience, over sufficiently long (actually infinite) time, they would add up to zero, to nothing, to the featureless, flat void, to non-existence. The condition where all vibration dies down to nothing can never occur (it would take infinite time) but if it did - that would define non-existence. Or, in thermodynamic terms, the absolute zero. Of course, there would be no one around to observe it.

According to both logic and physics non-existence is impossible. The corollary of this is that existence is eternal, Big Bang notwithstanding. Big Bang, after all, is not the official beginning of existence - it is merely a point in time beyond which we cannot see just like we cannot see beyond the event horizon of a black hole. What lies beyond we do not, perhaps cannot know. It is a mystery but it is not non-existence.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

12/14/07 (#0146) Love & economics

Need is a form of love. It is a manifestation of the love of being alive and well. Depending on how we define "being alive and well" need may fall anywhere in the spectrum from mere need of nourishment and protection from predators to the need of the ultimate meaning for one's life. As we move up this spectrum what is changing is the concept of "self". It expands from "that which is inside my skin" to "an integral part of the entire creation".

At the low end of the need spectrum there are many individual needs competing with one another. At the highest end, there is only one need - that of the creation as a whole. In between there are personal needs, family needs, tribal needs, national needs, and global needs, human and planetary. At each level we become identified with an ever larger entity, greater than our individual self defined by the perimeter of our skin, and we act primarily for the benefit of this greater entity, this our greater self. 

In the process, our individual significance, the meaning of our life, increases proportionately. At the same time our lives become more complex and ever more concerned with just distribution of common goods, material and immaterial. Effective internal economics is what holds large entities together.  Personal internal economics are governed by the metabolic processes. Tribal and national economics are governed by law and custom. The universal economics are governed by the laws of physics.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/13/07 (#0145) And the greatest of these is...

Fear is the evidence of intentional action. Where there is no intentionality there can be no failure and, therefore, no fear of failure. On the other hand, all intentional actions are accompanied by some degree of fear because of the inherent uncertainty of future circumstances. In yesterday's Nutshell, I observed that this unavoidable existential fear is conquered by courage.

But what exactly is courage? What is its origin, what are its fundamental constituents? Faith is one - faith that it will be possible for us to deal successfully with whatever the future throws at us, that we are not defenceless, that we have a chance. And even before all that, that we have a choice, that we can shape our future according to our desire or need. None of this we know with certainty, but we believe it.

Hope is another component of courage. It is a vision of success that sustains our effort. Where there's life there's hope - and vice versa.

Faith, hope, what about love? Actually, love is the first component of courage. It is the reason why we desire to act to begin with - why fear cannot stop us from acting. It is the prime mover without which nothing would get done - it's what makes the world go round.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/12/07 (#0144)  Taking the leap into the unknown

Dear Nutshell, - Thank you for the wonderful seasonal comments on the difference between transactions and gifts (TN#140).  If a spark of awareness is ignited then there is a moment of light in the dark. The flame can come from friend or foe or, to borrow from Tennessee Williams, we can always rely upon the kindness of strangers. - TABS  

Or, at least, the possibility of it... - the Ed

Why do we fear the unknown? Because experience teaches us that the world is potentially dangerous and our best defense lies in understanding as best we can the possible dangers ahead: forewarned is forearmed. We peer, therefore, anxiously into the future and try to predict it and to shape it according to our intent. Our fear is proportional to our lack of knowledge of what might lie ahead (which is never absolutely certain).

Two things enable us to go on without being paralysed by fear: probability and courage. We can estimate or calculate (though with only limited precision) the probabilities of various possible future scenarios and we can develop appropriate strategies based on these estimates. This optimizes our chances of success but does not guarantee it. A measurable risk of failure always remains. To act, we must take that risk. That is courage. The greater the risk, the greater the courage. Courage is acting even though we are afraid, taking a leap into the unknown.

But courage is not merely taking that leap. The fear does not end with the leap. Once we're into the unknown (which is always) we have to improvise as we go along as unforeseen challenges leap at us from all directions. That's where the courage is tested - in not loosing our heads to panic and not letting go what control we can muster over the changing situation until we ultimately succeed or fail irretrievably, not knowing which it will be. And if we do fail, it takes courage to pick up the pieces and try again. It also takes energy and intelligence, but first and foremost it takes courage, the willingness to go on in face of a potential failure.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/11/07 (#0143) Confessions of an anti-masochist

So I discovered where all the good-looking chicks are. They're at the gym, an institution I have managed to avoid since I was in grade school but which, to my utter astonishment, I have been attending religiously four times a week for the last couple of months (doctor's orders).

It's quite an inspiring sight to watch a class of young, well-built women do advanced aerobics - definitely an aesthetic experience, full of amazing grace. (By the way, the classes are coed - there is one token male in one of them). However, there is a darker side to this, as I was reminded this afternoon when I was going through my routine at the gym. On the back of the T-shirt worn by one of the energized bunnies was stencilled this grim message: "Good running requires acceptance of pain. Great running requires welcoming of pain". The old "no pain no gain" BS made chillingly explicit.

No, thanks. I am not here to look for pain. I get my share of unavoidable pain but I'll damned if I go welcoming it. If there is anything I'm not it's a masochist. My primary objective is to enjoy life, not to suffer. Pain and suffering are occasionally necessary incidentals, to be got through and forgotten asap. The focus is on enjoyment and I am ecstatically happy not to be a great runner, or a good runner, or any kind of a runner if to be one involves pain. (Mind you, I am in the fortunate position of not ever having to outrun hungry tigers).

OK, I understand there are people who enjoy running. Great! Running for the joy of it is beautiful, I'm sure. Suffering in order to be a great runnner is something entirely else. As far as I am concerned, that is a sign of inner insecurity, of low self-esteem. In a desperate effort to gain esteem of others some people are willing to go through any amount of pain to become better at something than most everyone else. (In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit that I am guilty of the same when struggling with my art).

It all has to do with making our lives meaningful, but I believe that while some pain is unavoidable in anything we undertake - it's just the way the world is - the process of making our lives meaningful does not have to be dominated by pain. If it is, there is something wrong. Actually, the process of making our lives meaningful should be first and foremost a joyous one. The pain, if any, should be merely that of stretching ourselves to the limit. It should never be something deliberately sought out. At times we may have to stretch well beyond the limit - or die. We do what is necessary to stay alive. Most of the time staying meaningfully alive does not require pain. Most of the time it can be a joy (if we pay attention).

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/10/07 (#0142) In praise of the electric guitar

(Re TN#0111 - Rock hard electric axe)   I must disagree with you on the subject of the electric guitar. I will grant you the at times rooster-like quality of the instrument, (the intro to the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper is a superb example). However, in my opinion, it is in many ways the equal of the violin, and the two can be interchanged surprisingly effectively in their musical roles. Consider the music of the Beatles in their middle and later years, timeless melodies and first class musicianship. Or Mark Knopfler, the lead guitarist from the band Dire Straits, and his smooth mellow style, exploiting the sweet graceful distortion of a small tube amplifier to its fullest (the type of amp used has a major effect on the tone produced---from sweet and singing to harsh and grating to heavy, hard and crunchy and then there are innumerable electronic effects that can be placed between the instrument and the amp, to further alter the sound). Going in the other direction are groups such as the Electric Light Orchestra, who started out with three cellos, drums and an electric guitar, and made some very interesting records before they discovered synthesizers and degenerated into a Disco band. And then there are interpretations of elecric guitar music on traditional instruments. Apocalyptica is a band from Finland, who play the music (though you may well disagree with the designation of it as such) of Metallica, on four cellos, sounding surprisingly Balkan at times. There is a group called Immigrant Suns, Americans of Albanian (?) origin, who do (among other things) a very convincing interpretation of Surf Rock on traditional instruments, with a fiddle playing the role of the lead guitar.

As for the aesthetics of the instrument itself, I find they run the full range, from exquisitely beautiful to hideously ugly. There is a wider variety of body shapes than with any other instrument, and while some are primarily functional, others are wildly expressive. They exist in every possible combination of pattern and color. (To me, the most beautiful ones are those finished in natural wood and polished metal, especially if they have intricate pearl inlay work). I don't perceive the electric guitar as being inherently more phallic than any of the other descendants of the long-necked lute that have evolved over the centuries, though I will admit that many of the people who play them on stage try to emphasize that aspect of their instrument. Electric bass players do it too, perhaps even more so, as their instrument has a longer neck. I think Chuck Berry is probably to blame for that.

You cited the not uncommon belief that Stradivari perfected the violin 400 years ago. I'm not going to disagree with that but I would like to add that there are plenty of people who feel exactly the same way about (take your pick) the Fender Telecaster (first made in 1948, still in continuous production) and Stratocaster (same, since 1954), or the Gibson Les Paul (introduced 1952, phased out 1960-61, brought back in the 70s, and going strong today) All of them are pure, iconic designs from a strictly visual standpoint, and each has it's own distinctive "voice" or coloration of tone. 

Rock bands without an electric guitar? Plenty of 'em over the years. Many many bands decided to give their ears a rest and record acoustic songs, or even entire albums. Led Zeppelin is an excellent example of this. Some of their acoustic work is hauntingly beautiful (though the "big hits" of theirs might well have seemed like noise to you). - Bryan

I plead guilty of ignorance of the electric guitar's full musical repertory, although I have always appreciated its capabilities as a musical instrument which, frankly, far exceed those of an acoustic guitar, for better or worse. (Incidentally, the electric bass is yet another entirely new instrument that evolved as a fusion of the upright bass and the electric guitar). Thank you for setting the record straight. - the Ed

Bryan having taken up all the space, there's nothing for me left to do but to bid you adieu.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/08/07 (#0141) A picture is worth a hell of a lot more than 1000 words.

I have always been torn between written words and still images as means of touching others. (Live, spontaneous, real time interactions or performances, verbal or visual, are as unnatural for me as singing for someone deaf - an aspect of my Asperger's Lite syndrome). Doing the daily Nutshell has brought this conflict into particularly sharp focus.

It seems I prefer to work with words, but for wrong reasons. I do labor mightily over both my words and my images, but manipulating words in a word processor is far less labor intensive than dealing with all the physical paraphernalia and manual work of image making. Since I hate physical effort of any kind, the path of least resistance leads inevitably to writing as the preferred activity. But to put things in proper perspective all I have to do is consider the impact on my social environment. What would my public appreciate more: an exhibition of my paintings or a book of my mini-essays? The images win hands down.

Once I have enough Nutshells squirrelled away to be able to select maybe a hundred readable ones (if Sturgeon's Law holds this should take about three years or 1000 Nutshells) I may actually publish such a collection in a book format. But making images has to remain the main focus of my efforts to communicate with the world. There's nothing for it, I just can't avoid the work it takes. Sigh... Might as well learn to enjoy it.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

12/07/07 (#0140) Presents, gifts and transactions

In our neck of the woods, the year end brings an avalanche of presents. It's a custom of relatively recent (19th century) vintage but with ancient roots going back to pagan celebrations of winter solstice. A couple strands of Christian lore are woven into this tradition in the form of Santa Claus, formerly Saint Nicholaus, a mediaeval Christian bishop who was made into a universal symbol of the spirit of gift giving on account of his legendary generosity, and the biblical story of the three "kings" bringing gifts to newborn Jesus.

The word "present" itself is neutral, meaning something presented to someone, for whatever reasons - love, gratitude, recognition, bribery, quid pro quo, or as a true gift. All of these reasons can be found among the motives behind the seasonal presents we give and receive but basically presents can be divided into just two groups: true gifts and transactions.

Unlike the true gifts that St. Nicholaus is famous for (he gave anonymously three sacks of gold to three virgins to help them save their virtue) the presents from Santa Claus are plainly transactional - rewards for being good. Quid pro quo. Other transactional presents exchanged over the winter holiday season are those of an obligatory nature (X gave me a present so I must give one to X, preferably of comparable value). Or those that are repayments, in full or in part, for favors received during the past year or expected in the next.

And then there are the true gifts. Typical of these are gifts (especially anonymous) to strangers in need - for no other reason than their need and our ability to help. It is a characteristic of a true gift that it comes unexpected, undeserved and with no strings attached.  The moment any conditions are attached to a gift it becomes a transaction.

It may seem like foolishness and waste of scarce resources to make gifts to the undeserving. But the wisdom of true gift giving lies in understanding what a person really needs - what will actually enrich them rather than feed their weaknesses. Such understanding, however, especially of a stranger, may be hard to come by. Which is why we have professional philantropic organizations which specialize in this. They make true giving an easy and efficient way of practicing our humankindness.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/06/07 (#0139) On being nice and candid

We who have lived long enough have witnessed the punkifuckation of almost all of the world's societies, most notably in the "Western" world. Nothing to worry about, though. Yet. We may no longer live in the polite, or even politically correct society, but it is still by and large a law-abiding one and better informed and better co-ordinated than ever thanks to the rapidly growing global interconnectivity.

The pendulum of social mores is still swinging away from the hypocritical niceness of the fifties. In the process we have perhaps come to more realistic terms with the beast within us. It might be argued that the sex, the gore and the cynicism pervading the media and the general vulgarization of language and manners have freed us to be more candid with each other and allow us to blow off our animal urges before they turn into dangerous psychoses. Maybe. It's true that we are not as nice as we used to pretend to be and there is something wholesomely cathartic in admitting this to ourselves and to others. On the other hand, there is also something to be said for making an effort to be better than we are.

The danger is that if we give the beast in us too much free rein we may loose control over it and it may take control of us. This has happened before, many times. It is happening now, as when soldiers we send into combat are forced by circumstances to become animals just to survive. For many, returning to full humanity after combat trauma is difficult if not impossible.

There is an optimal range of equilibrium between our animal and angelic natures where life is felt as good and fulfilling. It is a dynamic range which is continually re-determined by trial forays in either direction to test the ever-shifting limits. In the process, we necessarily exceed the limits (only too much is enough). Hopefully, we manage not to exceed them by much too much. Regaining the equilibrium, once we have lost it, is not easy. Loosing it is hazardous to our health.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/05/07 (#0138) Making Art exclusive for fun and profit

Art (with capital A) as it is currently practiced has become essentially an esoteric and expensive entertainment for the glitterati and the in-the-know arbiters of fashion. Also it has become more about the Artist than about his/her product. "Main stream" Artists these days are celebrities and their Art sells at fabulous prices because they are celebrities.

Of course, to become an Artist you do have to have star quality and chops. Youth and good looks, while not absolutely essential, are an important asset. You also need some peculiar notion about Art that can be turned into a brand. It doesn't have to make sense, it just needs to have some art-historical references and be outré enough to mystify the critics (the worst thing that can happen to an Artist is for the critics to decide they got him/her figured out). Finally, you have to circulate in the right circles and make yourself known to the right people and hope somebody important finds you fascinating. Once that happens, you will have to produce in some quantity, so you need to be a high energy sort of person. Fortunately, you won't have to do the heavy lifting yourself. You can hire people to make your Art for you. Business and organizational skills come in handy, but they, too, can be hired. As for what you actually produce, the main rule is: keep them guessing, play and experiment, have fun.

Let me not leave you with the impression that I disparage this process. The Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies, but good art does get made this way. Of course, good art gets made by many different processes, even accidentally. Good art is a very sturdy item - it gets made all the time under all circumstances. There is a natural need in the human nature to make art and we keep making it, badly or well, famously or infamously, publically or privately. By "good art" I mean something that knocks you out of your habitual mode of thought and perception by its beauty or form or intellectual content. Something you want to stop and savor and remember. Could be anything. Whether very expensive and signed by an Artist or anonymous and free.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/04/07 (#0137)  Truth and consequences

Re: TN136: Huh? Ever heard of terraforming? In a billion years we, or rather our descendants, will be able to change our climate, and even Mars's climate and Venus's climate and Europa's climate ... and that probably overnight. - Ardeshir 

Actually, no, I haven't heard of any feasible system of planetary reconstruction. Which is not to say that it is absolutely impossible. But our descendants will need to understand the forces shaping this universe far more intimately than we do to be able to reduce entropy on such a cosmic scale in sufficiently compressed time. - the Ed. 

The time has come for the testing of the American soul. The Presidential election is less than a twelvemonth away. (Of course, there is no such thing in the USA but that's not stopping anybody). And this time, thanks to the now rapidly waning Dick Cheney regime of the past seven years, things have got interesting and there is more than the usual amount of soul searching going on among the Americans.

The fact that it has now become conceivable to the Americans that a woman or a person of mixed race could lead them certainly adds to the interest. But most interesting by far is the totally new and outrageous notion that a presidential candidate might be able to win the election by being candid with the voters and telling them what he or she sees as the truth.

Barack Obama has to be credited with the idea and so far it is working for him. On the republican side Mike Huckabee is catching favourable attention because of his candidness. Whether this is a fresh breeze blowing through American politics or just a brief flight of unsustainable idealism, will soon become apparent. The "official" front runners of both parties are certainly of the  "politics-as-necessarily-usual" stripe, vying with each other only on the matter of competency in the art of the possible.

Can you tell the American people the truth and get away with it? Stay tuned.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/03/2007 (#0136) Changing weather

For the last few billion years or so, there were always three things present on the surface of the planet Earth: ice, water and water vapor. The average surface temperature of the planet has not changed a lot over these years, staying within the range that allowed all three to exist somewhere on its surface. This is one of the conditions for existence of life as we know it.

Venus, a planet about the same size as Earth but a little closer to the Sun, was not so lucky. There is some evidence that once there may have been water on its surface, but a run-away hot-house effect boiled it all dry long time ago. Currently the average surface temperature on Venus is in the vicinity of 900 F, enough to fry anything organic to a crisp in a few seconds.

Could this happen to Earth? It's not impossible. Whether it's probable is another matter. The Earth's climate is changing, that much we know. But it has always been changing. The question is, how likely is it to continue to remain within the ice-water-vapor range? Almost certainly it will stay in that range for a very long time to come by human standards. Even a run-away hot-house effect would take millions of years to dry up the Earth and turn it into a Venus-like planet. But don't stop worrying yet.

Earth will likely remain habitable for humans for a million years or more, whatever happens, but that does not mean that we can expect to live here happily for practically ever. As the climate changes, the size and location of the human habitat on the planet's surface will also change. That means we will have to move en mass to areas where we can be reasonably comfortable, and those areas may not be capable of supporting a population of several billion such as we have now. Large population shifts and die-offs due to climate change could happen within a foreseeable future.

Can we do anything about it? Maybe, maybe not. It is certainly in our power to speed up or slow down the climate change since in the last hundred years (an instant in the geological time) our activities have become a not insignificant contributing factor. We are freeing up the carbon that was captured over millions of years in the form of what we now call "fossil fuels" (coal, gas, oil) thousands of times faster than it took to lock it up, and accelerating. The good news is that we will run out of fossil fuels. The bad news is, by then it may be too late, in the sense that we may have assisted the shift in climate to the point where our habitat will have radically shifted and/or shrunk. We might not like it, but we'll undoubtedly learn to live with it.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

12/02/07 (#0135) Notice of cancellation

I think you are spot on with your categorization of watches, and the different functions (largely socio-economic) that they play. Among some interesting rationales for choice of watches there is the banning of electronic watches by the 24/7 (time really matters) oil & gas industry because of fire and explosion hazard from sparking electronics. So if you "made" it in the upstream side of the industry, and work around exploration rigs, on the drill floor, or around producing wellheads, your watch of choice would be a self-winding Rolex. 

I am strangely attracted to ultrathin automatics, with a clean, understated face, carved out of precious white metals. But on week-ends and during sports I usually wear my trusty Casio G-Shock:  it's wonderfully accurate and functional, multiple alarms, has dual time zones, stop watch, count down timers, and has travelled with me to hundreds of rigs and more than 50 countries over 15 years. My next watch will be coupled to a heart monitor, accelerometers on running shoes and bicycle pedals, inductor sensor on the bicycle chain, with a workout computer to optimize my cardio exercise and fat burning activity however I choose to enjoy myself! - Mike

What? No phone, no camera and no wireless MP3 transmission to your noise cancelling earbuds? - the Ed

Due to unforeseen circumstances beyond the Editor's control (i.e. a leaking toilet) the Sunday Special has been cancelled.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

12/01/07 (#0134) What is a watch?

It's Christmas gift buying frenzy time, and, judging from the ads in the glossies, what quite a few (mostly affluent) people are going to find under the Chrtistmas tree is a watch. The question for today is: what is a watch?

If your answer was "a small instrument worn on the wrist that keeps and shows time" - you get a C minus. Most watches do show time, some better than others, but, with few exceptions, that is hardly their primary function. Here are some categories of things that watches belong to:

     a) decorative jewellery
     b) mechanical marvels
     c) wealth-flaunting bling
     d) personality, profession and/or status indicators
     e) multi-function chronometers/tachometers
      f) miniature works of art and craftsmanship
     g) precious objects and/or collector's items
     h) portable, negotiable investments and family heirlooms
      i) time and date indicators

For the great majority of watches, even those of the mechanical marvel variety, the time keeping function is very much a secondary one. The faces are often chock full of "complications", multiple dials, retrograde movements indicating God knows what, or they are open "skeletons" exposing the inside works, so that at first glance there is no way to tell what time it is. You have to study the face close up, in good light, to find the hands which point to the hour and the minute. Some decorative jewellery type of watches are stylized right out of the readability range. The "Movado" watch with its blank dial except for a dot at twelve oclock is supremely readable compared to some wilder distortions of the dial shape, the numerals and the hands. Sometimes the decorative elements, such as the glitter of pavé diamonds, makes hands and numerals essentially invisible. In many elegant fashion watches the time indicating function is deliberately supressed to advertise the fact that the wearer has no need to be concerned about such trifles as the exact time. Style is what matters.

There are a few varieties of watches whose design stresses functionality, though not always for reasons of functionality. The apparent funtionality may be merely a decorative element or fake professionalism to impress the uninitiated. Some "sports" watches like "diver's" watches, "aviator's" watches, chronometers, etc. do come with big, bold, easily readable dials. Then there are "nurse's" watches, with their no-nonsense plain dials. And then there is my Timex: all stainless steel, water, shock and dustproof, scratch-resistant crystal, battery operated (five year lifetime), highly accurate and reliable, easily readable at a glance in any light situation including total darkness (Indiglow), and with day and date. In other words, everything that a wrist worn time-indicating instrument needs to be. And it's elegant, too. $35 at Walmart.

Until tomorrow (we're having another Sunday Special this week),

Paul W.