Stupid, vicious and did I say stupid yet?

I like the way this Black Friday insanity story begins:

From the Great Depression, we remember the bread lines. From the oil shocks of the 1970s, we recall lines of cars snaking from gas stations. And from our current moment, we may come to remember scenes like the one at a Long Island Wal-Mart in the dawn after Thanksgiving, when 200 frantic shoppers trampled to death an employee who stood between them and the bargains within.

It was a tragedy, yet it did not feel like an accident. All those people were there, lined up in the cold and darkness, because of sophisticated marketing forces that have produced this day now called Black Friday. They were engaging in early-morning shopping as contact sport. American business has long excelled at creating a sense of shortage amid abundance, an anxiety that one must act now or miss out.

The story goes on to dwell effectively on our obsession with things and shopping for them and how this is driven by business and advertising. But I don’t buy it’s conclusion for a minute:

It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled by desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.

With me that somehow leaves the impression that there was some rationale – even some justification – behind this frantic, mob action. I think it’s the phrase “fueled by desperation” that gets me. If it were a bread line – yes. But these people were in line for bargains on items I would wager most did not, in any real sense, need. They were dealing with manufacturered wants and their wants got way out of hand. Hell, their wants were out of hand as soon as they got up at 2 am so they could be in line at 3 am. Doing thata lone should make us question our sanity long before we trample some poor guy to death.

‘The View from the Center of the Universe’ – Chapter 1


“The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Place in the Cosmos” by Joel R. Primac and Nancy Ellen Abrams – a book. Amazon | Book Website | Primack is a physicist who has done significant work in cosmology. He is married to Abrams, a lawyer and writer with wide-ranging interest and knowledge. | This entry is an experiment in personal blogging. I have read this book three times. I now wish to go through it one chapter at a time, writing a summary in my own words. I see this as primarily an exercise for me, but it may be of use to others.


Chapter 1 – Two definitions of cosmology, three of truth, a fresh perspective on how science works, and even some arguments in favor of ugly – this chapter is loaded with a lot of fundamental and challenging ideas.

One that caught me off guard was the very nature of how science works, challenging the assumption that new theories overthrow old ones in massive paradigm shifts. The authors argue this was true in a single case – the Copernican Revolution – but that this single case does not represent what is typical of science.

Until now I have fully accepted the idea of paradign shifts, but the authors argue that what science really does is encompass older theories, perhaps limiting their application, but retaining and extending them. Thus, Newtonian physics is still good on the scale of the solar system, giving essentially the same answers as relativity. But go to larger scales and relativity is needed.

This was the newest new idea for me in the chapter, but there are many other stimulating thoughts here that I have nibbled around the edges of in my own mind before discovering this book. Here’s a catalog of the concepts presented.

Science as metaphor

Science is both a consumer and creator of metaphors and is meaningless without thousands of them.

Never thought of it with that empahsis. I have always seem science as a creator of models – but that’s different. Metaphors – I love them dearly – but what role do they play in science? Well, I think what they are saying is words as basic as “truth” and “universe” have meanings beyond those used in ordinary speech, so they are, in fact, metaphors? Perhaps. I’m not cmofrtable with the use of the word metaphor to describe the fact that in science many words have special meanings beyond their street meaning.

The two cosmologies
The first defnition is that a cosmology is the world view of a particular culture – how “human life, the natural world, and God or the Gods fit together.” Scientific cosmology, however, is the branch of astrophysics that studies the origin and nature of the universe. They want to combine the definitions in this book creating a “science-baseed explanation of our human place in the universe.” They argue that this is needed – that our modern, developing global culture is adrift without it and that such a science-based cosmology is the only neutral foundation that can bring us all together. Yes!

The mdoern cosmologist has faith that “we humans can get close enough to some aspect of the real universe to uncover a secret.”

Some thing

The authors ask “is the universe something” and I go tripping off the edge of a flat Earth – here’s my aside:

We have to think cause and effect – we think every creation has to have a creator. So for all of creation we create one and call it “God” – and, of course, conveniently ignore the child’s question, “did God have a mother?” Of course she did – a mother and a father – us. We created god. So we get locked in a huge circle.

But I have to ask this question because of these few sentenes:

What scientific cosmology does is put a mental frame, so to speak, around the universe. A frame gives its contents an identity, and until something has an identity, we can’t think about it; we can’t distinguish it from what is not-it.

Whoa! That’s good – but exactly what is not-it? That is, if it’s not the universe, what is it? That’s what bothers me about the whole idea of space expanding. Other minds may feel comfortable in this frame, not me. I’m always wondering what the universe is expanding into. I know, I know – space and time are part of the creation. Right. So space is something. Some thing. Fine. And beyond it? Well, there is no beyond. See, if you sail west too far you fall off the edge of the flat Earth. OK – back, to the book. I actually like it because it stimulates so many of these little asides.

. . . the universe of modern cosmology is not just a container – it’s a dynamic, evolving being.

Being? Yes, they said “being.” Sounds like Gaia taken to the nth degree. And science puts “a mental frame” around the universe so we can distinguish it from what is not-it.

And how are we going to get people to trust this science in an age where we do battle over teaching creationism in our schools? Perhaps on of the most startling – and useful – claims of the authors is that there already is a global consensus on science, though people may not admit it.

. . . no matter where p[eople fall along apolitical or religious spectrum, and no matter what they may claim, in practice they trust their lives to airplanes, computers, and other technological products based on modern science.

That’s a simple and powerful argument that I don’t think we use often enough when faced witht he inevitable cultural clashes between science and religion.

There are also some powerful throw aways here. For example the authors ask isn’t there really a Universe that created us? And they answer in two words.

No doubt.

Now isn’t that the heart of the matter? Isn’t that the foundational statement of the new faith they appear to be proposing? That we are the children of the universe and that all scientific evidence to date clearly show this? No doubt!

Truth and theory

I think the most important thing they say about theory is this:

A scientific theory can be disproved by a single counterexample, but it can never be proved true because that would mean it couldn’t be refuted; and if it can’t be refuted, by definition it’s not a scientific theory – it’s faith, not science.

The other, of course, is that a scientific theory has to be testable.

But truth – now there I found some new ground. It doesn’t come until later in the chapter, but I think it fits here. The authors define three different kinds of truth – religious, legal, and scientific. Frankly, the one that set me thinking the most was the legal one, having just sat on a four-day trial and been the one opposing point of view on a 14-person jury! But I hadn’t thought of legal truth the way Primack and Abrams do.

Religious truth is either a quiet certainty, or a certainty so obvious that for other people to believe otherwise is an offense against God. This kind of truth is, by definition, unquestionable.

Legal truth: is a set of “facts” found to be true by a judge or jury.

The facts “found” by the judge or jury may or may not be exactly what happened; but if they arrive at their findings by following the right procedures, then those findings become officially true.

My problem with the jury I was on was that there was not enough systematic, rational discussion of the issues. There was a rambling, disjointed discussion across a table with several people talking at once – and there was a vote – and it was over. Yes, mine was a dissenting vote, but the requirement in this instance was for 12 out of 14 to agree – so it was meaningless. The procedure had been followed, the case decided, the “truth” thus determined. Until reading this book I hadn’t seen that so clearly.

Scientific truthScientific truth is never certain – always open to challenge. And I love this point, for I think it has many profound implications:

People who crave this kind of Ultimate Truth rarely consider that they themselves are at only an intermediate stage of evolution and therefore in no position to understand anything ultimately.

and what about Beauty?

This seemed to me a bit of an aside, but an interesting one, especially since one of the favored words in describing a scientific truth is frequently that it’s “elegant.” The author argues from hard experience in developing cosmological theories that stand the tests of colleagues that the elegant answer isn’t always the truth and we should be very cautious not to let the beauty of an idea prejudice us. The problem is scale.

When we extrapolate such feelings about how things work to the universe, what we are actually imagining is how the universe would work in miniature if it existed on the size scale of our experience. But miniatures never work like the real thing. A toy care doesn’t run with a combustion engine, an atom is not like the solar system, and Earth doesn’t work like the larger universe.

I have been fond for some time of asserting that science is “uncommon sense” and in developing practices that overcome our common sense misconceptions. So I was very encouraged to read that the authors feel that common sense – “despite it’s default-setting of ‘on-Earth,'” – can be educated. They even go on to raise one of my pet peeves – that we continue to speak of “sunrise” and “sunset” when we have known for nearly three centuries that these words do not accurately describe what is happening.

As a cure for this last they suggest a contemplation. I think it is good, but I think you need much more – you need real exercises associated with the contemplation and you need to repeat them often for the lesson to sink in and become part of your mental furniture.

Myth in the age of science

Ah, yet another of my pet peeves – the common use of “myth” to mean untrue when in fact myths are designed to present the most profound truths that can’t be expressed in other ways. (Sadly, from my perspective even people who accept a myth as true frequently feel their myths – the ones they grew up with – are true, but others aren’t – and they fail to understand the deeper meaning that their myths convey. They see them as literal rather than metaphorical.)

They cite Joseph Campbell’s “the Inner Reaches of Outer Space” as helping set a major theme for this book – the development of a new myth that “must demonstrate humanity’s connection to all there is, yet be consistent with all we know scientifically.”

And it is here the author’s get down to what has bugged me for several years and lead me to create a Web site called “rapt in awe” and sent me on a multi-year mission to try to develop ways of achieving this state. I was a bit shocked – a tad embarrassed, actually – to see reflections of myself in this paragraph:

By endlessly creative means, including prayer, alcohol and other drugs, meditation, music, study, contemplation, sexual practices, shamans, priests, rituals, dancing, drama, art, and now science, people have sought to connect to the invisible at a level deep enough to trigger in themselves a sense of awe.

Yep – my embarrassment comes form being crammed in with some of the methods mentioned – but I am certainly trying to use science, contemplation, and meditation with experiences of the night sky to trigger a “sense of awe.”

The authors conclude the chapter by stressing the need for more involvement – more participation – of the citizens of the world with the universe. As they say, we don’t need simply to be educated, we need “to do something with it.”

This book’s attempt at seeking meaning through history, symbols, imagery, metaphors, and contemplation, as well as straight scientific explanation, is not entirely cosmology, but perhaps is the point of cosmology.

The most terrifying video you’ll ever see

Well, at least one of the most sensible 😉

Never ceases to amaze me what’s happening on YouTube these days – thanks for the heads-up, Jim!

Mumbai – running towards the explosion!

No religion which is narrow and which cannot satisfy the test of reason, will survive the coming reconstruction of society in which the values will have changed and character, not possession of wealth, title or birth will be the test of merit. – Mahatma Gadhi

In my youth religion shone brightly with non-violence. The religion of Jesus preached by my father – Jesus, who told Peter to put down his sword, who turned the other cheek, who reminded us of the commandment: “thou shalt not kill.” And the religion of Martin Luther King who lead a non-violent revolution that has born fruit this year in the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States. And the broad, encompassing faith of Mahatma Gandhi who lead all of India non-violently out of the bondage of colonialism. That was beautiful, that was different, that was then – not now.

Now the religion that walks the streets – makes the news – is the religion of hate and violence. It is not the faith of my father. Christianity in the US now spawns the ugliest of politicians and preachers, trading on fear and tribalism; generating fear’s child, hatred, and fear’s grandchild, violence. I find myself cursing Christians more often these days than blessing them, for the most noisy of them, like Bush and Palin and a slew of wealthy, tv-star preachers, feed on the anti-life forces while drawing the protective cloak of Christianity about them. And in the old worlds – the places where it all started – the most visible Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are now on the side of violence, rallying the old against the new in the name of false gods – not that the Christian god, nor Muslim god, nor Jewish god, nor Hindu gods are false – but the new face of religion hides behind these gods, denying them while claiming allegiance.

I knew that was what was at work when I first heard of the Mumbai bombings. It is confirmed today, in a wonderful piece done by an Indian/American journalism professor and writer, Suketu Mehta, in the New York Times. He has both explanations and solutions. He is the face of tomorrow turned towards yesterday in disgust and outrage.

In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.

He goes on to describe a Mumbai built on “transaction” – on money and glitter and fame and dreams – what many would call fantasies – more false gods.

Just as cinema is a mass dream of the audience, Mumbai is a mass dream of the peoples of South Asia. Bollywood movies are the most popular form of entertainment across the subcontinent. Through them, every Pakistani and Bangladeshi is familiar with the wedding-cake architecture of the Taj and the arc of the Gateway of India, symbols of the city that gives the industry its name. It is no wonder that one of the first things the Taliban did upon entering Kabul was to shut down the Bollywood video rental stores.

Oh I understand the frustration of the faithful with the shallowness of Bollywood – and Hollywood. Religion could have an answer to that – an answer that would be heard. We heard that answer half a century ago in India and the US. But now the answer is much different, much uglier. As I pondered this an image popped into my head of Snoopy doing his happy dance.

snoopy_dance

Only these Snoopy’s weren’t dancing in the joyful gleam of a child’s eyes – they were dancing like so many tin ducks in a carnival shooting gallery and the shooters were the religious fanatics in jeans and t-shirts who climbed out of the boats and methodically – with malice and forethought – slaughtered the dancers in Mumbai.

Yes, Snoopy can be simplistic and shallow, as can the fantasies of modern society – sophisticated, shallow, money-grubbing – obsessed with appearance, with sex, with fame, and with money. Snoopy, too, can turn ugly. But in the end, he is mostly harmless silliness. And in the best of times he is LIFE in huge letters, flashing across the screen in unbridled exuberance and lifting us all up. Life is a dance – a constantly moving, shifting, changing pattern – and as such a joy. Unless you fear change. Then you want to freeze it. And in the name of the Lord of the Dance, you invoke death. And that’s what these religious fanatics – these people who view themselves holier than the rest of us, who want to impose their values on us, and feel threatened by joy – these sad, sick, hateful, and violent people.

In such a world I choose life – even shallow, vain, grasping, and greedy life – over the mindless, souless automatons who would cut it down.

I like Suketu Mehta’s answer to all this. He concludes:

But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever. Dream of making a good home for all Mumbaikars, not just the denizens of $500-a-night hotel rooms. Dream not just of Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai or Shah Rukh Khan, but of clean running water, humane mass transit, better toilets, a responsive government. Make a killing not in God’s name but in the stock market, and then turn up the forbidden music and dance; work hard and party harder.

If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid?

So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.

Yes – have the courage to run towards the explosion, the courage to live!

A good goodbye . . .

. .. no, a great one!

Goodbye, we can say at last, to the most powerful man in the world being such a ridiculous buffoon, incapable of stringing together two coherent sentences. Goodbye to cringing with dread every time our president steps onto the world stage, sure he’ll say or do something to embarrass us all. Goodbye to being represented by a man who embodies everything our enemies want the people of the world to believe about America — that we are ignorant, cruel, and only care about foreign countries when we decide to stomp on them. Goodbye to his giggle, and his shoulder shake, and his nicknames. Goodbye to a president who talks to us like we’re a nation of fourth-graders.

And goodbye, of course, to Dick Cheney. Goodbye to the man whose naked contempt for democracy contorted his face to a permanent sneer, who spent his days in his undisclosed location with his man-sized safe. And while we’re at it, goodbye to Cheney’s consigliore David Addington, as malevolent a force as has ever left his trail of slime across our federal institutions.

Goodbye, indeed, to the entire band of liars and crooks and thieves who have so sullied the federal government that belongs to us all. We can even say goodbye to those who have already gone, to Rummy and Scooter, to Fredo and Rove, tornados of misery left in their wake.

Goodbye to the rotating cast of butchers manning the White House’s legal abattoir, where the Constitution has been sliced and bled and gutted since September 11. Goodbye to the “unitary executive” theory and its claims that the president can do whatever he wants . . .

There’s much more, of course – even some preceding this – read it all here – and thanks, Lisa, for pointing this out!

It’s funny, though – I do hardly think of him these days. He seems so irrelevant. I think he has at last deflated, though I don’t know that anything can get through that incredible bubble he wrapped himself in long ago. But perhaps it was his own party running away from hm as fast as they could that helped strangle his strut – and then the financial crisis where nothing he said was heard by anyone.

But in the end I suspect he still thinks of himself as being like Harry Truman who left the stage in disgrace – or at least, amidst extremely low poll numbers – and then was resurrected by history and soon enough for him to see it happen! I hope Bush lives long enough to see it isn’t going to happen – ever. Sometimes the actions are so clearly malevolent that history doesn’t need any time to decide.

Grim forecast in the wake of the Indian Violence

Update: 3:30 AM EST 11.28.08

From a Wahington Post analysis:

“This is a new, horrific milestone in the global jihad,” said Bruce Riedel, a former South Asia analyst for the CIA and National Security Council and author of the book “The Search for Al Qaeda.” “No indigenous Indian group has this level of capability. The goal is to damage the symbol of India’s economic renaissance, undermine investor confidence and provoke an India-Pakistani crisis.”

With all due respect to those murdered and injured, this is not a military strike. It represents no huge threat. The damage done is insignificant in military terms – far, far less suffering than will come from a war between India and Pakistan, for example. The goal is to scare, plain and simple, and from the fear to provoke over-reaction. The key to defeating terrorism is to stay calm – something the US did not do in 2001.

It is sad that the instinct of governments in these situation is driven by the need for self-preservation of the politicians in charge – they feel they have to look like they’re doing something and so they do exactly what the terrorists want them to do.

Who is responsible? Someone who will benefit from destabilizing relations between India and Pakistan. How do you defeat them? Keep the relationship stable and press for cooperative police work.

It is good to remember that even with the horrific toll of 9/11 – far deadlier than these attacks – the number of innocent people killed was one fifth the number of innocent people killed by drunken drivers in the US each year. Yet we turned the world upside down in response to that attack, and in the process weakening our military, stressing our economy, and of course getting more soldiers killed in Iraq than civilians who were killed on 9/11. We ruined our international reputation and diminished our effectiveness on the world stage. In total, we did to ourselves far more damage than the terrorists could ever dream of causing without our misguided response.

I can only hope India doesn’t make a similar mistake.


Original post:
Just got this email from Stratfor:

If the Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai were carried out by Islamist militants as it appears, the Indian government will have little choice, politically speaking, but to blame them on Pakistan. That will in turn spark a crisis between the two nuclear rivals that will draw the United States into the fray.

Stratfor is an intelligence service that in the past has given quite good analysis, IMHO. So this is hardly comforting, especially when you consider that we are inbetween presidents and there aren;t many good answers out there right now about what’s going on. Here’s the full email from them.

From an outsider’s perspective one of the most puzzling things abut the terrorists attacks in India is how puzzling they are. No one seems to have expected them, no one seems to know who is responsible. Sort of like the economic collapse in that respect. But in the final analysis I don’t think the details matter – he trend is clear.

A friend who grew up in India and has visited recently writes:

The Bombay we know is tolerant, multicultural and safe. Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and atheists have lived side by side, in peace, for hundreds of years. The attacks were totally out of character with the spirit of the city.

This event is India’s 9/11. The spark has been provided; I hope the fuel does not ignite. The subcontinent can easily deteriorate into religious riots, and war.

And a New York Times news analysis reports:

Who are they? The answer to that question remained in dispute Thursday as security officials and experts attempted to untangle the few clues as to the attackers’ likely identity.

An e-mail message to Indian media outlets that claimed responsibility for the bloody attacks in Mumbai on Wednesday night said the militants were from the Deccan Mujahedeen. Almost universally, experts and intelligence officials said that name was unknown.

Gin – one very talented dog and owner

Dom sent me a link to this saying it helped take his mind off the news – I agree.

There are other videos of the same dog doing some other routines. Amazing. But what I love about this is that they took the dance routine and made it into a show inthe same way the magician takes a bag f tricks and adds a plot to give the tricks context. Here the “Little Tramp” character is nicely done.