Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Critical Thinking

It is common enough these days to be told that such and such is true, let us say for example a statement like "Mankind is destroying the planet by creating global warming." Now if you don't happen to believe that and present quite clear and logical arguments against the proposition that human activities are contributing significantly to the problem (given that it even is a problem) you are cast in the role of a "denier." It is rather like Chicken Little crying "The sky is falling" and if you say, "I don't think the sky is falling" you are accused of something like, "You are a fool if you think it's not" or "Your obstinacy is keeping us from taking effective action." Now before you take action of any kind you ought to establish that the thing is happening and if it is that the action proposed will be effective in producing the intended consequences.

But that's not my point. My point is that the discourse should never reach this point. The whole essential activity called thinking and more specifically critical thinking has been short circuited by a variety of rhetorical and senseless, frankly shameful fallacies that have kept any thought at all from happening.

Claims made without evidence are called assertions. An assertion "The sky is falling" is not an argument even if it is the assertion "Man is causing global warming." Calling someone a name is also not an argument it is a logical fallacy called ad hominem, and saying that someone is funded by the oil companies and therefore everything he says is wrong or suspect or whatever is another fallacy. A man paid by oil companies is as likely to be as honest as a man paid by politicians. There are long lists of fallacies which one really ought to have at least some kind of knowledge of.

But really all you have to know to think reasonably well is: 1) Assertions are not arguments, 2) Any assertion only becomes an argument when data, principles, observations, values and consequences are all brought to bear. Observations lead to data, and linked to data principles lead to expected consequences which can be confirmed. Values are also linked to principles which relate the values to the consequences in an evaluative way. Only then can we find any "oughts" that may be involved. "We ought to save the planet if it is endangered and if we can." If we discovered that the sun was going nova next week there isn't very much we could do except calmly prepare to die. But if we insist on living in New Orleans then it's sheer madness not to make the levies as strong as possible so that even Katrina sized storms won't breach them, or perhaps we ought not to build cities below sea level.

The problem is that much of our public discourse carries no data. We are being called upon to believe people because they make claims and among those claims is that they are scientists. The last time I looked, being a scientist myself, I noticed that all the scientists I know are fallible human beings like the rest of us. Virtually all the global warming brouhaha for example is based on computer models. I used to write computers models and still do now and then. I used to joke that GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out) didn't mean that, it meant Garbage In, Gospel Out. That's because the aura of having come from a computer still carries some of the magic elixir of infallibility.

The case is very different. A computer model is never better than its validation and climate models are not only short on validation they actually have error bars associated with their various inputs that are larger than the variation in their outputs. In other words they are little different from speculation. You can't make a good computer model from components that are themselves poor models. It's the same way with critical thinking. A chain of thought is only as good as its weakest link. One bad component makes the whole chain of thought weak.

I remember reading Richard Feynman's very good little book The Meaning Of It All in which he comments that if you have a good argument that's all you need, but if your argument isn't very strong then you need to multiply reasons. That's the same principle that goes into making rope. A single strand may be quite weak, but if you multiply the strength with many strands it gets stronger. One very powerful strand would be enough (the strong argument) otherwise you need lots of weaker arguments that all point in the same direction. Note that I said arguments not conjectures, not assertions. Arguments have to have reasons that are backed up by data, real data, convincing data.

Nowadays it is rare to see any data at all. Instead we are told of consensus (an argument from imputed authority — that's a fallacy) or warned of dreadful consequences, or told that this is so dangerous that even if it might be wrong we have to act as if it isn't. This is all nonsense and fear mongering. What we need is less passion and more critical thinking. It's hard to do with a population raised on sound bites and spin.


"It's very complex." How many times has someone said that line at one time or another to dismiss a question? One gets it thrown in ones face whenever the topic is economics or global warming or anything else that pundits have an answer for that they can't explain.

How is it that we can solve our economic problems by spending money we don't have? Bailouts are just another way of saying impoverish your children or bankrupt the nation. Nations have to live by the same laws of the universe, including economics, as everyone else. "Ignore the man behind the curtain." Congress is no more able to ignore the laws of economics then they are at getting anything meaningful done. It's all smoke and mirrors.

Global warming is another one of those things. I've been reading about ice-ages and looking at graphs until I'm blue in the face with annoyance about the general nonsense being purveyed. The current warming trend extends back to before the industrial revolution and has continued without appreciable change in general slope through the period that fossil fuel usage ramped up. No sign in the data of any particular change in slope unless you carefully cherry pick your data. So yes the planet is warming and no, we don't seem to have much to do with it. "It's all very complicated you know."

Life is that way too. The Darwinian theory of evolution is certainly an interesting intellectual jump from the capacity of animal breeders to modify animals by selection to the idea that everything has preceded by the same principle only naturally preserving random modifications that have survival value. It's a terrific source of "just-so" stories. I do have some questions about whether it has predicted very much since there seems to be a story which explains things regardless of what the things are. One of the proofs used to be that we had lots of vestigial organs in the human body. You know, organs that are really unnecessary, that don't do very much, that are left over from earlier adventures of the lifeform, but we don't hear much about that argument anymore. Why? Because we've discovered what they do for the most part and it would just reveal our prior ignorance to keep on repeating the argument.

In the DNA genome world there is a similar thing going on. There is this phrase "junk DNA" going around to describe all the DNA that we haven't figured out that lies between the DNA that we have figured out. I'm rather confident that after a century or so we'll look back on these writings with a distinct sense of superiority since by then we'll likely have figured out what a lot of that "junk DNA" actually is doing. "It is, after all, very complex."

Of course complexity gets a bad name. Poking around my library, which threatens to take over the house and spill out into the universe, thereby releasing a scourge no less severe than opening Pandora's box, I stumbled upon my copy of "The Design Revolution" by William A. Dembski. The subtitle of this work is "Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design." I'd like to comment on the tautology "Intelligent Design" — there really isn't any other kind of design. If there is a design, then there is a designer. If the case were otherwise then we couldn't properly call it design at all. That being said, complexity (that's what we're talking about after all) that has a point, that is ends up being teleological, is hard to explain unless it is evidence for design.

Chesterton put it this way: It is absurd to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything. -- G.K. Chesterton from his book on St. Thomas Aquinas

Monday, December 29, 2008

More on Stories ...

I mentioned that I'm reading, rereading actually, Of Other Worlds
by C.S. Lewis. The first essay in the volume is "On Stories" which I enjoyed reading immensely despite having read it several times before. I am one of those who like Lewis and Chesterton place a very high value on story. We are embodied stories each and every one of us. Whenever we write we are transmitting some of ourselves, our thoughts and imagination, into the marks that become transmitted meaning. I think of all of my many books as spirits frozen in time between the endboards of the books, waiting to speak just to me. There is simply too much in this essay to share in a quick note so I'll only mention a couple of the things I enjoyed.

Lewis talks about science fiction for example. He mentions reading David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus and there discovering what planets are really good for. I won't spoil the surprise in case you don't know.

He makes a great many insightful comments about story not merely as a sequence of events but as the state or quality or theme or perhaps atmosphere which the events bring to us in a way hardly conscious. He uses the title of Morris's The Well Between the Worlds to make the point — the title itself evokes a mythic atmosphere that any story is likely to be unable to live up to. Giants, Red-Indians, and Pirates are other examples. Lewis is quite clear that the kind of thing we find in current movies is not acceptable often because it simply is a fastpaced, frantic sequence of events failing to evoke the atmosphere. In the essay he cites, early on, King Solomon's Mines taking the filmmakers on for spoiling the story by changing the climax to enhance the excitement.

There is a lot of insight in the essay. One of the special moments for me is when he touches on the subject of reading. He says,"An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only." This is a telling indictment of much current education and attitudes. You can't appreciate even the most simple work of literary art on a single reading. Indeed, you can't even grasp it that way. Reading opens pathways in the mind and sometimes they need to rest a bit so that rereading the same passage comes as a new experience, a broader widening experience that makes our understanding more complete. Lewis knows that in his bones. Most moderns have not fallen to it as yet.

He makes a most insightful comment about unliterary readers (but it strikes me that it covers all readers). Even a bad work can inspire because if it engages the imagination of the reader then as Lewis says "... He will, at a mere hint from the author, flood wretched material with suggestion and never guess that he is himself chiefly making what he enjoys."

Lindsay's book is a case in point it seems to me. It is abominably written as Lewis himself says and I would agree having read it only because of Lewis. But it is evocative and the conjuring of the imagination is an important part of reading and the experience of story.

I probably should mention that C.S. Lewis is a clear mind. He was also a Chestertonian or at least he was strongly influenced by Chesterton.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Shroud Update

The Shroud of Turin continues to be an object of great fascination regardless of whether it is the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ as so many believe or some sort of amazing icon or work of art from the 14th century as the 1988 carbon 14 date seems to suggest it must be. Whichever it is, it is a fascinating and mysterious object.

I have been studying the shroud since the early 1960's, more seriously in the past 20 years. I am inclined to the view that it is authentic, but there remain plenty of unanswered questions. Perhaps some will be answered using new data. HAL 9000 an organization that specializes in high resolution art photography made a high resolution image of the Da Vinci Last Supper painting and were given an opportunity to apply their wizardry to the Shroud of Turin in January 2008. See a brief video HERE They took a series of over 1600 credit card sized images at high resolution which composited forms the highest resolution image of the Shroud of Turin ever taken.

Technology seems likely to revolutionize shroud studies, called sindonology, over the next few years. Here's an on-line video of a small thread from the shroud which researcher Giulio Fanti is inspecting with a microscope.

The images at the top of this post are false color images created during my image processing studies for the Columbus Conference in August 2008. The objective of my study was to create a segmentation algorithm which classified pixels as cloth, blood, or image based on their color and luminance. The first is particularly interesting since it colors all pixels black except those considered image or blood pixels and is hence coherent with the areal density view of the image formation process. The second image is created by a set of six color/luminance space points representing six classifications. A pixel is classified by which of these six color/luminance space points it is closest to. It worked pretty well but there is more to be done.

The Primacy of Story

In Chesterton's Introduction to The Everlasting Man he says "Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it, so I will use it symbolically here; for it was a symbol of the same truth." That truth, like the story of the man who left England to discover a new world and got turned around and discovered his home instead, a story that leads off Chesterton's earlier book Orthodoxy, this account draws a similar lesson. I would summarize it as Only by leaving home do you gain a full appreciation of what home is. That sort of conjures for me Dorothy clicking the ruby slippers together. There's no place like home.

I'm reading C. S. Lewis's little essay "On Stories" in the volume of his essays and short science fiction titled Of Other Worlds. The book is a paperback first printing of 1975. You can tell from the price, a mere $2.75 compared to the Lordly prices appearing on paperbacks today. The whole subject of story and its capacity to move the minds of men (yes and women too ... I am always terribly annoyed that the women have read themselves out of the human race giving emasculation a whole new meaning perhaps more aligned with Freud than anything else, but that is all another rant.)
Back to story, it seems to me that story is at the heart of all of us. Each of us has a story, our story, and each of us is part of a larger story. So I am spending a little time searching the Gutenberg Project text of The Everlasting Man for each occurrence of the word story, a worthy endeavor on a Sunday morning, especially the Sunday morning after reading Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. For those who have not, Sunday is the most interesting character and the most mysterious.

Chesterton castigates the moderns for confusing the story about the facts with the story about their theories about the facts. Better to tell the story just as it is found in the evidence in the cave paintings as to spin theoretical tales and lose the substance of the real that was found:

It would be far better to tell the tale of what was really found as simply as the tale of heroes finding the Golden Fleece or the Gardens of the Hesperides, if we could so escape from a fog of controversial theories into the clear colours and clean-cut outlines of such a dawn.
The old epic poets at least knew how to tell a story, possibly a tall story but never a twisted story, never a story tortured out of its own shape to fit theories and philosophies invented centuries afterwards.

The old epic poets at least knew how to tell a story, possibly a tall story but never a twisted story, never a story tortured out of its own shape to fit theories and philosophies invented centuries afterwards.

Chesterton's point is clear enough. When you bring your theories to the story and inject them at the beginning you do justice to neither the story nor the theory. Reminds me of global warming frankly. There the apocalyptic tale gets quite in the way of the non-evidence, but that's another rant too.
Stories are told in various ways. The simplest is to begin at the beginning and go straight through to the end and then stop. More complex is the story that begins in media res, in the middle of the thing. Human history is just that kind of story.

In other words, our most ancient records only reach back to a time when humanity had long been human, and even long been civilised. The most ancient records we have not only mention but take for granted things like kings and priests and princes and assemblies of the people; they describe communities that are roughly recognisable as communities in our own sense. Some of them are despotic; but we cannot tell that they have always been despotic. Some of them may be already decadent and nearly all are mentioned as if they were old.

How many stories are there? When I was about twelve I encountered in the public library a thesis presumably from someone's doctorate, that claimed there were only seven (perhaps it was eleven, but in any case a small number) of plots. Man seems to find certain stories resonate the soul and these become called myth.

I confess I doubt the whole theory of the dissemination of myths or (as it commonly is) of one myth. It is true that something in our nature and conditions makes many stories similar; but each of them may be original. One man does not borrow the story from the other man, though he may tell it from the same motive as the other man. It would be easy to apply the whole argument about legend to literature; and turn it into a vulgar monomania of plagiarism.
Suppose we read 'And in the hour when the king extinguished the candle his ships were wrecked far away on the coast of Hebrides.' We do not know why the imagination has accepted that image before the reason can reject it; or why such correspondences seem really to correspond to something in the soul. Very deep things in our nature, some dim sense of the dependence of great things upon small, some dark suggestion that the things nearest to us stretch far beyond our power, some sacramental feeling of the magic in material substances, and many more emotions past fading out, are in an idea like that of the external soul. The power even in the myths of savages is like the power in the metaphors of poets.

Chesterton has a marvelous way of tying ideas together across long expanses of text that sparkles like fireworks or embers exploding from a seam in the burning logs at a campfire as a master storyteller spins his tales. Here he returns to the point that theories simply distort the data, especially when intermixed in its telling.

I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man. Moreover there have been too many of these human Christs found in the same story, just as there have been too many keys to mythology found in the same stories. Three or four separate schools of rationalism have worked over the ground and produced three or four equally rational explanations of his life.
From the moment when the star goes up like a birthday rocket to the moment when the sun is extinguished like a funeral torch, the whole story moves on wings with the speed and direction of a drama, ending in an act beyond words.

Therefore the story of Christ is the story of a journey, almost in the manner of a military march; certainly in the manner of the quest of a hero moving to his achievement or his doom.
Every attempt to amplify that story has diminished it. The task has been attempted by many men of real genius and eloquence as well as by only too many vulgar sentimentalists and self-conscious rhetoricians. The tale has been retold with patronising pathos by elegant sceptics and with fluent enthusiasm by boisterous best-sellers. It will not be retold here.

Perhaps the best recasting of the passion part of the story at least was in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Is there any need to repeat and spin out the story of how the tragedy trailed up the Via Dolorosa and how they threw him in haphazard with two thieves in one of the ordinary batches of execution; and how in all that horror and howling wilderness of desertion one voice spoke in homage, a startling voice from the very last place where it was looked for, the gibbet of the criminal; and he said to that nameless ruffian, 'This night shalt thou be with me in Paradise'? Is there anything to put after that but a full stop?
Nothing short of the extreme and strong and startling doctrine of the divinity of Christ will give that particular effect that can truly stir the popular sense like a trumpet; the idea of the king himself serving in the ranks like a common soldier. By making that figure merely human we make that story much less human. We take away the point of the story which actually pierces humanity; the point of the story which was quite literally the point of a spear.
The life of man is a story;an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story of God.
There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or a determinist story; for every story, yes, even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end
with a last judgement.
The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. A story has proportions, variations, surprises, particular dispositions, which cannot be worked out by rule in the abstract, like a sum.
It is one among many stories; only it happens to be a true story. It is one among many philosophies; only it happens to be the truth. We accept it; and the ground is solid under our feet and the road is open before us. It does not imprison us in a dream of destiny or a consciousness of the universal delusion. It opens to us not only incredible heavens but what seems to some an equally incredible earth, and makes it credible. This is the sort of truth that is hard to explain because it is a fact; but it is a fact to which we can call witnesses.

Perhaps I ought to mention that Gilbert Keith Chesterton is one of the clearest minds that ever lived. Everything highlighted in color is a quotation drawn in sequential order from a search through The Everlasting Man on story and presented is the order found.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Becoming Real

I suppose it is pretty obvious that things that matter must also be real at least in some way. We live in a very materialistic age that often seems to think that either nothing matters at all, or that whatever matters is tangible and real in the sense that it is made of molecules and atoms.

Common experience puts the lie to such a crude interpretation of the real. No human being is ever fulfilled by things, dead and lifeless, incapable of giving love even if they can be loved in a fashion like the ice queen. I suppose it is a bit schmaltzy but I always think of the Velveteen Rabbit

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

Thomas Dubay wrote a book titled "Authenticity" which is about biblical discernment but I think it goes further than that. Authenticity is about embracing the real and the real is more than the dance of atoms. We can't see all that is real. In the simplest sense this includes things like magnetic fields and gravity which we do experience but cannot see. There are other things which we can't see but we somehow apprehend, things like goodness, justice, beauty, truth, things like the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.

To be real a thing must possess that most fundamental of all attributes, existence.
Some real things have to come to us to show they are real like the angel came to Mary or we have to trust those who communicate unseen realities to us often because they have been so profoundly influenced that they live lives that have been transformed and we see the reality of their experience in the transformation of their lives. Saints fill that bill!

The challenge we all have is to become real, as real as possible. Perhaps that is why I like the Velveteen Rabbit so much.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Who Do You Trust?

It was a long time ago now, back in the mid-1960's. I was a young Physics major on a half-tuition, fees, and books scholarship from the United States Navy in those post-Sputnik years when the government was subsidizing science education. In my Summers I worked as a student-trainee intern for the Navy at the Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, Pennsylvania. It's not there anymore, a victim like so many other facilities of refocusing of priorities.

On a particular day I was walking across one of the big hangers where we reconfigured aircraft for development testing with another student. The topic was how anyone could really understand the complex systems that we worked on. The point was that total system understanding didn't necessarily grow out of local subsystem understanding, what is called today emergent behavior. How did anyone know that the whole complicated thing was going to work? Of course the answer is really that no-one really knows. There is a whole lot of hubris wrapped up in the design of complex systems.

Mike Hess was my companion and he said something I've always remembered: "My dad says it's all a game of who do you trust?" said Mike. His dad was an engineer. The point was that the integrity of any system depended on the integrity of the pieces and these in turn depended on the integrity and expertise of the people who designed them. It really is a very large game of "Who do you trust?"

Later my dad, who had risen to the rank of Rear Admiral was talking to me about how to assume the command of a large organization you were unfamiliar with. He said that you had to find a trusted assistant who knew how the organization worked and then trust him (or her) to give you good advice. These and other experiences rattled around in my head and gelled into a philosophy that popped out when I was traveling with a friend of mine in Sperry's marketing department, Harvey Dennison. We were talking about what was important.

"Two things," I said, "are important. People and ideas." People are important because it is only because of people that anything at all is important. Ideas come from people and the good ideas, the true ideas, the meaningful ideas are those that guide our lives. Sometimes the ideas are too complicated or too involved for everyone to understand them, whether they are true or false, good or bad, meaningful or meaningless. Then it becomes a game of "Who do you trust?" The signposts of trust are knowledge and good will. Good will is useless without knowledge and knowledge is destructive without good will. I find myself still reflecting on "Who do you trust?" and that has been much of the motivation of my search for the clear minds I talked about a few days ago.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

We Wish You a Merry Christmas ... Tra La Tra La

I don't do my own outside Christmas Lights but there are certainly a bunch of people who are addicted to doing a bang up job of it. So below find a bunch of Christmas Lights ...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all who pass by. This time of year all the grinchs are out saying "Happy Holidays" or just grumping or muttering something when you say "Merry Christmas!" in a cheerful voice.
Now I know there are Jewish people and Islamic people and some African American people who don't celebrate Christmas and Christmas is a specifically Christian holiday, although it is also a secular holiday of gift giving.
The religious dimension is what interests me. I think that religious tolerance extends to accepting good natured greetings like "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Hanukkah!" or "Happy Kwanzaa!" for that matter. Indeed I think we should encourage acknowledgement of one another's serious faith commitments. Seeking the truth will always lead to people taking different paths. It is important to respect the decisions that other people make so long as they are not destructive and immoral.
Only the Grinch or Scrooge or those who think their convictions override all others have any basis for being unpleasant to those giving them good natured greetings and wishing them well. I'm inclined to simply smile and repeat the wish for a very Merry Christmas. Just because they are being miserable is no reason to join them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


As Chesterton said: "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." Today's gospel is the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel takes a message to Mary telling her she has found favor with God. She is hailed as "full of grace." It is this salutation and the titles of Mary such as Ark of the Covenant that led to the doctrine of her "Immaculate Conception." But that takes me off my topic.

I want to concentrate on "Angels." Mortimer Adler insisted on "Angels" being one of the Great Ideas. Somewhere or other, and I'm not sure where, Adler discusses the issue of adding Angels to the Great Ideas. He balances the idea of Angels with the idea of Matter. Matter is Body without Mind and Angels are Mind without Body. We who inhabit the domain between Mind and Matter, an image of God molded on the matrix of molecules, speak of Muses, and we are assured in scripture that we each have a guardian angel. (Mt 18:10)

"The materialist assumption that spiritual substances do not exist is as much an act of faith as the religious belief in the reality of angels." — Mortimer Adler

Where Scripture speaks of the world's creation, it is not plainly said whether or when the angels were created; but if mention is made, it is implicit under the name of "heaven," when it is said, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." — St. Augustine

"Angels are spirits, but it is not because they are spirits that they are angels. They become angels when they are sent. For the name angel refers to their office, not their nature. You ask the name of this nature, it is spirit; you ask its office, it is that of an Angel, which is a messenger." — St. Augustine

The aura of light that surrounds them, especially the haloes that encircle their heads, suggests a quite different role. Their wings betoken their coming to mankind as messengers, but their haloes symbolize that they come from heaven which is their home. — Mortimer J. Adler, Angels and Us

Friday, December 19, 2008

Clear Minds

L. Ron Hubbard (not one of the clear minds that I have in mind) was a science fiction writer who started his own religion, Scientology. It was a conscious decision. As Theodore Sturgeon said he overheard Hubbard say in a heated discussion: "Y'know, we're all wasting our time writing this hack science fiction! You wanta make real money, you gotta start a religion!" Growing up I was fascinated by science fiction. I started with Robert Heinlein's juveniles which I still love. The first science fiction book I remember reading was Rocket Ship Galileo. Even at the time at the age of about eleven or twelve I thought the premise a bit strange, a rocket club starts the first real moonship, but I was at the same time reading Willy Ley and Wernher von Brauns's books on how to get into space, still a more sensible approach then the one we actually used as a space spectacular instead of good solid technology.

A. E. van Vogt another science fiction author whose work I enjoyed including his three volume null-A series, The Weapon Shops of Isher, and Slan was involved early on with Dianetics. John W. Campbell, the iconic figure of Golden Age science fiction who edited Astounding Science Fiction, helped popularize Dianetics by publishing an article about it in the May 1950 issue of Astounding.

Dianetics is a rather pop-psychology affair dreamed up by Hubbard which involves a process called auditing to clear the mind of bad things called engrams. I don't pretend to know much about it, but I liked the general idea of clearing the mind of bad stuff, since we all have all sorts of bad stuff in our minds. It has a sort of surface plausibility that we can improve our mental state by getting rid of all the bad stuff in our minds. What could be more sensible? Of course what Hubbard was talking about is sort of unconscious, beyond our control, bad stuff. What I think of as bad stuff is all the things we believe that are not true.

This brings me to the term clear. A Clear is someone who doesn't have any bad stuff in their minds. I suppose I should be very clear about Clears — I don't believe a whit of the Scientology stuff, but as a young person I was influenced a lot by John W. Campbell's editorials in Astounding and they occasionally used terminology drawn from Dianetics. I liked the idea of clear minds which to me meant minds unfettered by errors. This began my search for Clear Minds which I could use as role models. I mentioned a few in a post a couple of days ago. I probably should mention some others. They would include some of my favorite folks:
There are others of course, but that's a good starter list.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Chronological Snobbery

C.S. Lewis coined the term "chronological snobbery" and talking about the myth of progress. In the popular mind, anything older than yesterday is old fashioned and impossibly out of date. In the face of the constant technological flux this may be understandable but it ought to be sobering to realize that we really don't know how the pyramids were made and the columns of the Parthenon are really a wonder. Perhaps the ancients didn't have everything figured out, but they knew a heck of a lot more than we generally give them credit for.

The Antikythera mechanism is a mechanical analog computer recovered from an ancient shipwreck estimated to be from about 150 B.C. and recovered in 1902 from the sea floor near the Greek island of Antikythera. It depicts the locations of the moon and the five planets known at the time. Check out the video below from the New Scientist

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Don't We Have Enough to Worry About?

I'm really amazed how emotional the "global warming" issue seems to be. I was just exchanging a series of emails with a troll named 'Q' on my sister Mary's blog. The usual propaganda was being exchanged. There is little doubt that there is some global warming on average. After all the ice from the last ice age is still melting. What is less understandable is why anyone thinks we, i.e. mankind, has anything to do with it. It's true that we burn a lot of fossil fuels, but the human contribution to CO2 is nominally 3% of what is a very small amount to begin with.

But that I have to mention that is already misleading because it has not been established that CO2 drives climate. It's about 380 parts per million in the atmosphere. The ice core data shows that warming precedes increases in CO2, not the other way around. One theory is that increased heat releases CO2 dissolved in the oceans.

The tree ring data shows that the current warming is not out of line with warming in the past long before there were humans burning large amounts of fossil fuels. Even the local temperature data going back to around the 1850s precedes the build up in fossil fuel usage but the temperature build up (slope) before and after the increases in fossil fuel usage did not change slope.

Finally, the global warming alarmists have used fallacious data and when this was discovered they did not correct it. That's quite disturbing since it shows that they are more interested in their social agenda than in the truth. There are too many Chicken Littles in the world sounding the alarm about all manner of things, most of which are at least exaggerated and often enough total fabrications.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Primacy of Doubt and the Fallacy of the Answer

Among the proper goods of the mind is the search for and discovery of truth about the existence we all share. Key to discovery is an inquiring mind asking, constantly asking, questions. There is an embrace between the questions and the answers. There are two principles that I think are necessary on the journey of discovery:

The fallacy of the answer is the idea that questions necessarily have answers and that often only a single answer. The questions frame the search for truth. Often the question narrows or dictates rightly or wrongly the direction of the search and can even misdirect. Usually there are many answers and there may be no answers. When there are many answers there may be no best answer. When people demand a single answer they are demanding the cessation of thought not the answer, for there is no answer in general.

If you have an answer it is essential not to stop looking. The answer may be wrong. It may not be the only answer. If you stop looking then you have abandoned the search. There are no answers that can not be further enriched. Many thinkers have expressed this in various ways and I'd like to provide some short quotes:

SOCRATES: "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance."

PETER ABELARD: "The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth."

MORTIMER ADLER: "When judgment is not suspended, and the mind judges correctly or incorrectly about the truth or falsity of propositions under consideration, such judgments may be either highly probable (i.e., beyond a reasonable doubt) or just more probable than contrary judgments, but they are never beyond the shadow of a doubt. They change from time to time, as new empirical evidence is found or new and better reasons are given for altered judgments."

RICHARD FEYNMAN: "The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt."

I think we would all be served by accepting the universal principle of existential doubt. No matter how certain we are of anything, we are fallible human beings and we are likely wrong in some manner or degree even if we are correct in other aspects.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Meeting of Minds

I always liked the whole "mind-meld" idea from StarTrek. It was especially poignant when Spock mind-melded with the mineral lifeform the horta whose children the miners had been harvesting on a mining planet.

What happens whenever we communicate is a form of mind-meld. An image in our minds is converted to a stream of words which we deliver as sound and those we are talking to hear the sounds and reassemble them into a version of the image now in their minds. We rarely reflect on how wonderful and mysterious this process is. The amount of shared knowledge which is required to give it any hope of working well is actually rather staggering. Yet everyday we communicate in this way and take it all very much for granted.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Remembering Pearl Harbor

My dad was on the U.S.S. Detroit, a light cruiser at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. I was only newly conceived in my mother's womb. She was in their small apartment in Oahu. The picture here is a Japanese recon photo published of the western side of Ford island. The caption is from another Detroit crewman, John Noyce Millner (you can see his comments by clicking on the picture): "Photograph of the western side of Ford Island and ships in moorings offshore, taken from a Japanese Navy plane during the attack. Ships are (from left to right): USS Detroit (CL-8); USS Raleigh (CL-7), listing to port after being hit by one torpedo; USS Utah (AG-16), capsized after being hit by two torpedoes; and USS Tangier (AV-8)."

Stories I remember are that they had to shoot the lock off the armament locker because the fellow with the key was nowhere around. Also they didn't have fuses for the anti-aircraft guns so they just pumped shells out which exploded at the peak of the trajectory (I gather) instead of being fused. Dad was contributing a little independent fire with a 30-06 rifle, probably not effective but good for the spirit when you're being attacked.

I always think that the John Wayne movie "In Harm's Way" is pretty much based on Detroit. Dad also had the con when Detroit was exploring North of the islands and was attacked by a Japanese submarine's torpedo. He ordered the ship to turn hard and that heeled the ship over some 60 degrees and dumped the Captain's breakfast in his lap. He was angry and came out yelling about the idiot who had turned the ship.

Luckily the Admiral embarked (the Detroit was the command ship of a Destroyer squadron) saw the whole thing and defused the situation by yelling down, "Well done son!" At least that's how I heard the story. Noyce Millner elaborates on the Detroit story with:

When the attack was over the Detroit got under way about 12:30 pm along with the USS St. Louis and a small group of destroyers with orders to proceed north and search for the enemy. After a three day unsuccessful effort the group returned to Pearl Harbor. What we saw was disheartening. Eighteen ships were sunk or capsized. Aircraft on the parking strip were burned. The hangars were destroyed. Many other ships were in various stages of damage. The surface of the harbor was covered with black oil, debris and floating bodies.

The Detroit left almost immediately to escort the commercial liners Coolidge and Scott which were transporting military wives children and some wounded to San Francisco.

My mom and I (on-board) were on one of those commercial liners that Detroit and her destroyers escorted to the mainland. I wasn't actually born until June 4th, 1942 the day of the battle of Midway when the Japanese carriers got their comeuppance. But that is another story.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

No End In Sight

Down the Drain

The parade of whiners continues ... banks ... auto executives ... anyone that is big and irresponsible is crawling to congress for a fix. Since when is it a government function to throw money at whiners? Did I miss that part of the constitution? Oh I know, it's the line that says "Steal from responsible citizens to bail out irresponsible citizens ..." that must be it.

The song currently being sung is that bail outs are cheaper than collapse. Why should that be true? If you give money to irresponsible idiots they will throw it away and then collapse. Just look at congress as the foremost example. Besides where does all this money come from? Someone has to actually work to make it so that government can waste it. But government can waste it faster than it can be created. In that direction lies not depression but dissolution.

We will be on the road to social disintegration if we continue down this path. You can't save yourself by irresponsible support for irresponsibility. But with enough idiots reciting the mantra we have a bunch of Democrats moving that way. The sucking sound you hear is the country going down the drain and as we get closer the churn gets faster.

The only advantage I currently have is that I'm not in debt, but that just means that the gubbment will come and steal what little I have left. I think it may be time to go back to that old American custom of paying in cash.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cool Stuff

Always writing about politics or greed or both seems like it could get mighty boring. Today Newt Gingrich sent around a political piece that sums up the current crisis following a Thomas Friedman editorial of November 25th as the progeny of a breakdown in well morals. He cites a sentence at the end of Friedman's editorial: “The financial meltdown involved a broad breakdown in personal responsibility, government regulation and financial ethics.” My own view is that this means a bunch of people should go to jail, not be bailed out by throwing our hard earned money in after them. But it is all too depressing and way too predictable. It's just going to be more of the same so let's get on to Cool Stuff.

The Pulse Smartpen

I just picked up a Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe and I have to say I'm impressed. A few years ago I remember an earlier technology and I thought about getting that at the time but it seemed too expensive and too klutzy. The Pulse offers 200 hours of sound recording (2 Gigs of memory) and includes stereo earphone/microphones as well as a notebook (it requires special paper).

Well it came in the mail and outdid my expectations by quite a lot. Not only does it save your notes in high-fidelity, but it doubles as a calculator and a sound recorder and the lecture you record is time-synced to the notes you are taking. So you can tap on a note and the pen will play back what it was recording when you took that note. It also does text and number recognition and has a built in calculator. You create a calculate point and you can tap on it and them write (yes write) the four function math problem and the pen does the calculation.

You can also get third party software that converts script to text. I downloaded the trial version and if you are fairly careful it does a pretty accurate job. My handwriting is pretty good so maybe that's not a fair test.

One of the clever little touches is the piano. You can draw a keyboard and play the piano and your pen makes appropriate sounds as you do it. You can even select the type of instrument you want to sound like and pick an accompanying rhythm. The 2 Gig version was $199 and a one gig version goes for $50 less. At that price this is one of the coolest gadgets I've seen in years.