Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Tall Essay

I am about 6 feet 2 inches tall. I have never thought of myself as particularly tall. When I was in elementary school--one time in life when relative size seemed to matter, where the phrase “size places” had meaning—I was of middling height. I hit my growth spurt in high school, along with everyone else, so though I may have grown faster than some of my peers, I did not notice. The management guru, Morris Massey, posits that our core values are laid down by the time we are seven years old. It may well be that I formed the impression that I was of medium height early on, and nothing in the subsequent periods (Modeling [ages 8-13] and Socialization [ages 13-21]) disturbed that impression. That is itself a disturbing discovery. What other operating assumptions from when I was 6 years old have survived unquestioned for six decades?

A logical first step would be to determine by some objective standard whether I am tall. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the mean height of a male over 20 years old in the United States is about 5 ft. 9 in. At 6 ft. 2in. I am in about the 94th percentile of men. So when I am in a crowd of a hundred random men in the US, there are likely to be no more than 6 men taller than I am. It also means that in a crowd, I know where I am because I can see all around me. My spouse is 5 ft. 2 ½ in. tall; she is in about the 35th percentile for U.S. women over 20 years old. The 5th percentile for men begins at about 5 ft. 4 in. That means that when she is in a crowd, 65% of the women and over 95% of the men are taller than she is, and many are tall enough to obscure her vision completely. She does not like being in crowds. How stupid do you need to be to to not realize the fundamental difference in our experiences of crowds? I have realized it from time to time, but it is not a consistent part, a necessary part of being with my spouse in a crowd.

No, I never forget that I am taller than she is, but wrapped in the misconception that I am not that tall, I figure everyone is seeing about the same thing I am; therefore, I don’t understand that what I am seeing has anything to do with my height. Do you see how this works? Because I do not see myself as tall, I have been unaware of what should be clear evidence that I am tall. I must believe I am tall before I can understand that what I see in a crowd is evidence that I am tall.

Since the 2016 presidential election, like many crestfallen progressives, I have been thinking about how people can ignore facts and evidence and logical reasoning. Reflecting on my height problem has made me more sympathetic to someone who might ignore evidence when deciding how to vote. Breaking the habit of thinking of myself as of average height did not happen because I got more information; it happened because I looked at specific situation from the point of view of someone I cared about and did it enough times and with increasing attention so that I understood the situation differently.

But saying that looking at a situation or idea or problem from another point of view may be crucial in understanding a situation is not saying that truth is relative. Evidence supported by facts must the bedrock of our understanding of the world. Taking into account another perspective does not mean that facts are irrelevant to arriving at the best understanding of a situation, but ignoring another point of view may make facts invisible. In my case empathy preceded evidence. And even with the empathy and the evidence, it still takes a conscious effort to think of myself as tall.

So my sense of superiority in thinking that I voted based on logic and evidence, and those who voted differently did not, assumes that my decision is rooted in self-evident facts. But perhaps those facts were not just unpersuasive to some people, they were invisible, and the evidence they based their decisions on was invisible to me. Understanding the difference this way does not change what I think of the decisions, but it does mean I can be less puzzled about why people made the decisions they did in the face of evidence compelling to me but invisible to them. Their decisions no longer seem blatantly illogical since they do not ignore facts; they don’t see them.

My height problem suggests that over the next months, as the changes resulting from the 2016 election play themselves out, if people experience some changes directly or indirectly through what happens to those they care about, their views of the situation may change, and facts may begin to appear, like the letters in Wheel of Fortune, until the message pops into place for them. I will be guessing and spinning the wheel too, and we will see who among us is most surprised by the results.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Like most white males with college degrees, I am deeply disturbed by Trump’s election. All the specific negative consequences (consequences I do not wish to list because reminding myself of them only increases my sense of despondency) contribute to that ache in my stomach, but a disorienting worm in that clot of concern is helplessness. I feel that way because my tool for dealing with things like the Trump victory—logical analysis—has been undermined by that victory. Logical arguments based on fact were not just insufficient; for many Americans, they were not even relevant. Appealing to emotions—telling people you will address their concerns, proving to them that you understand those concerns by stoking their fear and prejudice and anger while making vague references to solutions—is the kind of argument that won the day. Even Nate Silver’s painstaking logical analysis of the polling data was wrong and unhelpful.

Trump told people things were terrible when they were not terrible, but it is pointless to kick that dead horse because citing facts has been proven ineffective (an assertion based on fact) since people who make decisions based on wishful thinking are immune to logical argument. Even if the wishful thinking were less negatively motivated, it would still be a problem; that for so many, it is negative, makes the need for a solution more urgent. If facts and logic don’t matter, what are the tools we are going to use to fix this? How can I move beyond being helpless.

I am not thrilled with the conclusion I have come to. If hate and fear got us here, maybe compassion is the only way back to where we can start to use logic again. That seems like such a limp response, since my hurt and anger wish for a terrible swift sword. I am not good at compassion, but as I try out courses of action in my head, I keep getting to the last corner and turn to see Compassion sitting there smiling at me, not with a bright, cheerful, sunny smile, but a calm and slightly bemused smile that shows awareness of my internal conflict, a smile full of, well, compassion.

Looking for something else, I happened on a passage in Thomas Carlyle’s 19th Century Sartor Resartus, which suggested a way for me to start thinking about my approach to compassion:

‘In vain thou deniest it,’ says the Professor; ‘thou art my Brother. Thy very Hatred, thy very Envy, those foolish Lies thou tellest of me in thy splenetic humor: what is all this but an inverted Sympathy? Were I a Steam-engine, wouldst thou take the trouble to tell lies of me? Not thou! I should grind all unheeded, whether badly or well.’

Those who disagree with us, especially if they are particularly forceful about it, care about what we think of them. This sensitivity to the opinions of others is a clear Trump trait. Those who supported Trump are likely to respond well to some respect, and looking for some common ground to build that respect is a laudable goal.

Of course this might be easy for me to say because I live in Massachusetts, where Trump supporters are a clear minority. On the other hand, the compassion may be even more appreciated.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

People, Who Live in a Glass Houses

In the previous entry, “In a Glass Dome,” we considered the problem of accepting the simpler scientific explanation for something when that acceptance requires a change in world view. Perhaps global warming as a result of human activity is such an explanation. It may not seem as momentous as accepting that the earth moves around the sun, but it is akin to it.

God by Terry GilliamPhoto: Cinema 5/EMI Films (BBC America)
Those who believe that the natural world was created for us by a benevolent God (well, once we disobeyed, he became a bit less benevolent, but it was still our world) those believers, may have a hard time accepting that we can screw the place up and disrupt the divine order of things. For such believers, making that claim overestimates our power; besides, because divine intervention to destroy or restore the world is always possible, thinking that we can control what happens is an act of pride. However, if we see ourselves as just part of the natural world, not its overlord but the cleverest of its animals, we realize that we can die out, perhaps the victims of our own cleverness because nothing guarantees that our species will survive to the end of the world with trumpets and angels and all. So in order to accept global warming as a serious problem, we need first to accept that we are not the special creatures of an all powerful being who will do what is best for us.

The opposite of the humility-based argument is the hubris-based argument, expressed by those confident that humans’ godlike ingenuity can increase the capacity of the world regardless of what happens. They point to how the Green Revolution, resulting from an array of agricultural innovations that replaced traditional farming methods, radically increased the world-wide crop yield. The increase in food after World War II was almost miraculous, and some places where starvation was endemic were eventually able to produce surpluses. Those who feel that the potential for innovation is unlimited are not intimidated by the warming of the earth. 

Of course the Catch-22 of that position is that since we have not been innovative enough to to reduce the rate at which the earth is warming as a result of our other innovations, why do we think we can solve the problems resulting from global warming when we could not deal with its causes? Even the Green Revolution, with its heavy reliance on chemicals, fossil fuel, mono-culture, and massive irrigation, is itself becoming a problem as the cheap food it has been able to yield has wiped out more resilient, low-impact, local agricultural practices. Now the climate disruptions created by global warming--the shifts in seasonal patterns, droughts and floods, and violent weather events—are putting stress on industrial agricultural practices that helped produce the warming. It is a gamble to go on in an unsustainable manner depending on some unspecified, future breakthrough to save us, to think of the earth as an infinitely open system.

In 1966, the economist Kenneth Boulding argued we should treat earth as a closed system and understand that we need to be as careful of what we are doing as we would be on a spaceship. Buckminister Fuller warned in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1968) that fossil fuel is a finite resource developed over millions of years, a resource we should treat as temporary, something we should use to develop renewable sources of energy. NASA’s Big Blue Marble composite photograph taken by Apollo 17 in 1975 shows the globe of earth as a whole surrounded by the blackness of space. Though we can travel over the continuous surface of the earth and never reach an edge, this image shows that sharp border between the earth and the blackness surrounding it: our earth is a small finite spot in a huge hostile universe. 

In 1988 when James Hanson of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified before the US Congress about global warming, some Americans began to take notice. People of my generation grew up with the fear of a nuclear apocalypse and were used to the idea that people could make the earth unlivable. However, the Mutually Assured Destruction approach to world peace (appropriate acronym, MAD) involved devices whose sole purpose was to destroy, so all we needed to do was not turn them on. But global warming is different because it is a byproduct of living well, the dark side of progress. In order to stop the destruction we must do more than not turn things on; we must turn things off, and to do that we must change the way we live at a fundamental level.

Just as Galileo’s observations and analysis cemented Copernicus’s heliocentric explanation in place, the subsequent work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forced us to accept that our actions are affecting the earth’s viability for humans. Global warming reminds us that in deciding what to do, we must not ask only “Can we do it?” but we must also ask “Should we do it?” The first is a scientific question; the second uses scientifically derived information, but it is an ethical question. We must rediscover that the universe does not revolve around us humans, that the earth was not made for us, but that we have evolved and thrived in the earth’s environment, and if that environment changes too much, our species will die out.

Once again accepting scientific results disrupts comforting religious and humanistic world views. To extend the survival of our species, we must accept the possibility of its death.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In a Glass Dome

So let us begin with a classic case of simplifying.
Ptolemy’s planets from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1st Edition, 1771). Wikipedia

In this diagram of Ptolemy’s universe (developed ca. 150), planets revolve in epicycles around invisible points revolving around a stable earth. This explanation squared with the ancient belief that our earth was the center of the universe. 

Based on Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Wikipedia
Move the sun to the center as Copernicus did in 1543, and the need for epicycles disappears. Natural philosophers had found Ptolemy’s explanation satisfactory for about 1200 years and resisted Copernicus’s. Beginning in 1609, however, Galileo began making observations with telescopes, producing a series of phenomena that made the geocentric model of the universe harder and harder to defend. However, even Copernicus, for whom the starry dome of the night sky overhead became the “immobile sphere of fixed stars,” did not get it all right.
The accuracy of the sun-centered explanation of the motion of the planets seems obvious to us now, since it is a so much simpler explanation. We often refer to Occam’s razor to explain the scientific preference for the simplest explanation, but William of Occam (1287-1347) was not the first one to formulate this idea; ironically, a much earlier statement of it, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible,” was made by Ptolemy. However, another formulation of Occam’s razor is more precise in its application of simplicity: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected” (Wikipedia). 
The Ptolemaic model required many assumptions, some of which reached far beyond astronomy and were entangled with religious belief so that in the 16th Century, disassembling the world view based on the geocentric universe was hardly a simple act because the heliocentric view of the planets required a whole new view of the world.Religion functioned then as science does now: a universally accepted schema for explaining the world. For us, science predicts the future, tells us what to eat, heals us, speaks the obscure language of mathematics, explicates the stars and planets to us, and understands the mysteries of the invisible quanta, just as medieval Christianity did. If some discovery falsified crucial assumptions of the scientific process—the discovery that, for example, the earth is actually a computer simulation and the code has just been changed so that some conclusions already proven are no longer true—if such a proposition were itself proven, would we all embrace it immediately because it was a simple explanation for why some outcomes defied science? For the 16th Century, heliocentrism was not a simple solution.

Galileo’s proofs of the Copernican universe met with serious push-back, and he died while still in official disgrace, but later, when he was reburied in a place of greater honor, the middle finger of his right hand was removed from his body. Currently on display in a glass dome, it is suitably mounted in a vertical position, perhaps as a warning to those of us too invested in our assumptions to see the simple truth of our situation.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Natural Language Processing

I am writing this during allergy season, which many people associate with the appearance of goldenrod. However, goldenrod is not a problem for allergy suffers, because its flashy flowers mean it depends on attracting insects to spread its heavy pollen. If you are searching for a culprit, look among those plants who do not care whether anyone notices them, those with, say, green flowers, like ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Its nondescript flowers sticking straight up in the air depend on wind pollination, so they fill the air with their pollen that we then breathe in. How we understand the world influences how we see it.
Monarch Butterfly on Golden Rod
I have thought that perhaps I can help people find that richer relationship with the natural world through the power of metaphor, which charges the world with the electricity of imagination and enables us to see and feel the excitement inherent in the world that surrounds and includes us. Just look at the names of those two late summer plants: “golden rod” for the tall beautiful plant that entices insects to itself as part of its sexual reproduction and “rag weed” for the unattractive, low down plant that promiscuously spreads its pollen to unwelcome passages. The contrast in their natures is captured in the imagery of the popular name—riches and rags.
I call what I want to do “nature writing” rather than “environmental writing”, because environmental writing seems more journalistic and news/event driven and shifts focus as the news of the day shifts focus. Nature writing, in my lexicon, strives to be reflective and universal; I want my writing to be powered by our engagement with the nature where “lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” However, I am beginning to think that I can no longer write about nature without some environmental undertones or overtones. To deal with a real place is to deal with its ecology, and as McKibbon pointed out in 1989 (and is even more obvious today) there is no ecology that is unaffected by human decision making.
But even my dependence on explicit metaphor may be suspect. As George Lackoff and Mark Johnson pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, first published in 1987, even our everyday language is shot through with metaphor, and we use interconnected networks of metaphor to define and clarify our expression. For example, an idea is like a plant: it grows and spreads and can be nurtured and can die. Metaphors drawn from concrete experience of nature weave their way into our thinking, and those ideas then echo in our descriptions of nature, so that the ancient forest becomes majestic and inspiring like a grand idea. That relationship suggests that language is a good way into nature because language and nature interact in our experience, just as our abandoned fields of disturbed earth create an environment for ragweed, and ragweed creates an environment for us. And now I will go blow my nose.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


We were visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I bent over a display case in the Yellow Room, one of whose themes is music, to look at a letter, which I think was written by Brahms, but as I did so I noticed a small card in the corner of the case explaining that its contents were copies, since the originals would be damaged by the light. I was surprised at how quickly I lost interest in the case once I knew that.

 Blue Room from the Gardner Museum (
The Gardner Museum is a wonderfully bizarre place, designed by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself to house the particular art collection that she owned. She envisioned the museum itself as a work of art, so she specified where and how all the art was to be displayed. The museum was completed in 1903 and her decorating tastes are Victorian, and by today’s standards, she is into clutter. Of course, the museum professionals have built a modern wing where they can do it “right,” but the main part of the museum embodies the vision of a particular person shaped by a sensibility different from today’s. An exhibit while we were there featured some masterworks from the collection. A section of the museum was closed and they had placed (as it says in the exhibit description) “[a] select group of paintings and drawings in our contemporary exhibition space, [to be] seen up close and lit to best advantage.” We could indeed see the paintings, hung at gallery height with space between them, but the effect seemed generic compared to Isabella Gardner’s more idiosyncratic arrangements.

That same disconnect from the past may also be at work in my response to the letters in the Yellow Room. The difference between the real thing and an accurate reproduction of the thing makes me recall Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written in 1936, and prompted by the rise of photography, sound recording, and film. The ability to reproduce a work of art raises the question of the role of the original. The problem has only intensified since 1936 with the creation of digitization, since the colors of a painting on a high definition screen glow from the inside and allow the examination at extraordinary detail.

This reproduction of Rembrant’s The Night Watch and this detail of the left eye of the central figure [though such detail is possible anywhere on the painting] are from the Google Art Project.

Benjamin talks about the real thing having an aura, and surely that is part of it. An original is something Rembrandt touched and being in the presence of the actual object gives me, at least, a slight tingle that resonates from the physical connection with an object created over 300 years ago.

 Night Watch Gallery --Eric Smits
The actual object today is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, so the setting of the original is quite different from the one I see it in, a computer screen in a small second-story room in a house in northern Massachusetts. The context in which we see something has an impact on how we perceive it, even though that context is generally extraneous to the work of art. As my Gardner Museum experience reminded me, displaying art is itself art. Ultimately, however, we cannot look at a work of art in its original context because contexts have quick expiration dates; any film with the world Trade Center in the New York skyline has been changed forever. 

The ability of a reproduction to take the work of art out of context seems less damning than what reproducing implies about the object itself. To value the high quality reproduction, we must assume that the essential aspects of the work of art are being reproduced in the reproduction. We capture the color, the structure, the tones and shades, even the cracks in the texture. But each age has its own values, its own sense of what is important and what is unimportant, and we will leave out what we think is unimportant, and something is lost in the transmission across time. Only some fresh eye looking at the original will see it and point it out, and our eyes will be reopened to something we have become blind to, even when we look directly into its huge, enlarged eye.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mystery Lessen

From Hans Jenny. The Soil Resource (1980, Reprinted 2012)
Rainwater falls randomly from the sky into a tree where the rain becomes organized into drip patterns defined by the shape of the leaves, branches, and bark of the tree until, dripping into the soil, the water becomes randomly organized once again. Wendell Berry, in a letter to Wes Jackson (reprinted in Home Economics, 3-5), critiques this description from a scientific book on soil by arguing that randomness is not “a verifiable condition,” but is “a limit of perception.” He asserts that “random” is a misleading word that assumes there is no possible pattern in what is observed; the more proper term is “mystery.” “Random” assumes that there is not possible pattern; “mystery” assumes we just can’t see it.

While Berry emphasizes practicality, he associates mystery with religion and there is danger in letting mystery come trailing that umbilical cord. The earliest uses are theological and often were associated with secret religious rites. The most common and comprehensive theological use of “mystery” today is probably based on this Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving.” Defined this way, “mystery” becomes as much of a dead end as “random,” shutting down further exploration with certainty. If we posit a god capable of creating unsolvable mysteries, in a sense the mysteries disappear into God, who embodies the solutions. Why do we die? God does not die. Why are there evil people? God is perfect and entirely good. Why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? It will all work out because God is perfectly just. God resolves all mysteries, but if we take God out of the picture, what remains are the mysteries for which there are no facile answers.

The most expansive non-theological use of the term “mystery” is related to the OED definition, “A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma.” Despite the use of the word “inexplicable” in the definition, a Google search on “solve a mystery” or “solve the mystery” yields 8.6 M hits, so that for many of us a mystery is something to be solved; it is open-ended, and in that sense calling something a mystery in the non-theological sense is a beginning.

The popular genre of the murder mystery turns on the axis of logical analysis. A satisfying ending generally involves explaining motivations and events with proof that establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, though such stories also allow for the operation of “justice” outside the law. Such an extra-legal conclusion would be unsatisfying, would become a crime in need of solution.

I have argued earlier that not all conflicting dualities can be resolved and that perhaps our best understanding is to accept both and see the world in 3-D. Maybe the better way to describe our response should be to say we can’t ignore dualities. They suggest enigmas, mysteries, in need of deeper exploration, though I suspect that we will discover deeper mysteries that allow us to understand our state more clearly; it will likely be mysteries all the way down.

Science should be done surrounded by mystery. Religion and science could both use more respect for mystery. Perhaps if religions treated God as more mysterious and thought twice before claiming to know what God wants and to speak in God’s behalf, the world might be a more peaceful place.