Moody madness laughing wild

If you gotta ask the question, you'll never understand the answer ...

If you gotta ask the question, you’ll never understand the answer …

The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is a bizarre allegorical romance attributed to a German theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.

The story takes the form of a vision – what you New Age folks would call “lucid dreaming” – in which our hero, Christian Rosenkreutz, experiences a series of episodes that supposedly illustrate great cosmic truths which are never explicitly articulated. The symbolism is lavish and highly detailed: for the uninitiated, it all seems like some sort of paranoid fantasy, but for those with the proper training and insight there is supposedly much useful information to be gleaned. The nature of that information is, again, not clear: Is it a cookbook of alchemy? Recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone? Procedures for turning lead into gold, or quicksilver into the Elixir of Immortality? Or is it perhaps a glimpse behind the veil of reality, offering clues as to the fundamental powers of our universe? As with so many esoteric systems, those who tell don’t know, and those who know aren’t telling – at least not for free. Continue reading

Sweet Poison

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later...

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later…

During the first twenty years of my life, a time I mostly spent romping around the woods and fields of Sand Mountain (that’s in northeastern Alabama, for you heathens), I saw exactly two venomous snakes. One was a cottonmouth swimming in a catfish pond, who took one look at me and swam the other way; the second was a copperhead sunning himself on a rock next to that same pond. I was able to sneak up close enough to spy on the copperhead for about two seconds before he, also, detected my presence and bolted.

There are, in fact, four venomous snakes native to my home state: the water moccasin, the copperhead, the coral snake, and an assortment of rattlesnakes. (The latter two varieties managed to elude me for the entire two decades, despite my habit of placing myself very much in their way. To this day I’ve never seen a rattlesnake or a coral snake outside of an open glass tank in a church … but that’s a story for another day.) The majority of the snakes in the region are harmless to humans, or even highly beneficial, efficient predators on mice, rats, moles, and other farmyard pests. Continue reading

An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

What to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that “fuzzy” isn’t working, so out comes the thesaurus.

Let’s see: “Blurry”? That gives us “enirma”, and we’re not having any of that. “Indefinite”? Too many letters. “Soft”? Too few.

Here we go: “Vague”. Pencil it in, and … yes! It fits. We fill in a few of the blanks around it and we see that everything works.

. . .

The scientific method is like that crossword puzzle. There are some things you’re positive about, some you’re reasonably sure you’ve figured out correctly, and some you just can’t quite pin down, but the important thing is that everything interconnects, so a piece of the puzzle that’s clearly wrong will begin to stand out pretty quickly as the rest of the clues are filled in.

Individual facts, like the words in the crossword, can be tried, rejected, accepted, or replaced, but what matters in the end is the internal consistency of the entire structure, and the way the whole puzzle evolves and solidifies as more and more blanks are filled in. “Fuzzy” was perfectly acceptable until “enizma” came along; then it became clear that there was an error somewhere, because the bigger pattern wasn’t holding together.

Until Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the applecart in the sixteenth century, the generally accepted view of the solar system placed the earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it. This system worked fine for centuries, but as time passed and the observed data began to fill in more and more blanks, problems appeared. To make the system fit what we could actually see happening in the sky, the orbits of all the heavenly bodies had to be incredibly complex. Mars and Jupiter needed to stop dead and then go backward from time to time; eclipses could only be explained by mysterious invisible objects casting shadows at odd angles; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn had to perform amazing spirals and loop-the-loops.

All the blanks in the crossword had words in them, but the answers weren’t making any sense.

Copernicus looked at the problem and realized that maybe “fuzzy” wasn’t the right word for seven down (figuratively speaking). He made a very simple adjustment in the prevailing system: he moved the sun into the center, and the planets into orbit around it, with their own moons orbiting them in turn. Now, suddenly, all of the orbits were ordinary ellipses, smooth and steady; eclipses were nothing more than shadows cast by one object on another; and the positions of all the bodies could be predicted centuries in advance by calculations any educated person could understand. It was no longer necessary to accept “enizma” as a word.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.”   – Nicolaus Copernicus

Even Copernicus didn’t have all the answers. With the passage of time, we’ve developed more sophisticated tools with which to observe our universe, and we’ve found questions that would have crippled the thinkers of the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century no one was equipped to measure the gravitational interactions between and among the planets; we didn’t know anything about how spacetime itself was organized, or the subtle effects of solar cycles and nearby stars on planetary orbits; the very size and shape of the universe could only be guessed at.

But still, even today, we can build on what Copernicus gave us all those years ago: we don’t have to try to come up with some elaborate excuse to allow us to use “enizma” for fifteen across. We can use logic and common sense to resolve the dilemma, and from there we can move on to new questions, and search for better answers to old ones.

In religion, no one questions the unreasonable answer or the wildly complicated explanation. We just accept that “enizma” is correct, even if it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of sense, because that’s what faith is: accepting without the need to understand.

The fundamental truth of science, on the other hand, is that there are no fundamental truths: we observe, we theorize, we experiment, and when we find a model that works, we build from there, knowing that it’s best to use a pencil, because we may still have to go back and change an early answer based on what we’ve learned since.

And that, dear reader, is why I love science. An enigma is a challenge to be met, a question for which each new answer always leads to bigger and more exciting puzzles demanding to be solved — and if we’re willing to stop at “enizma”, we’ll never have the opportunity.

 

Truth and lies.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

I was poking around among the bookshelves a day or so ago, looking for something to entertain me as the first cool weather of the season settles in, when I spotted my rather tattered Penguin Classics copy of the Histories of Herodotus.

This is one of those books that I like to read once every decade or so. It’s long (over 620 pages in this edition), and the print gets smaller every time I pick it up, but there’s something cozy and comforting about it, like that sweater that you would never dream of wearing where people could see you, but that’s perfect for puttering around the house. There’s enough snob value in just having the book in your hand that you don’t have to slave over the really heavy parts; when the political stuff gets dull you can always skip to the stories about headless cannibals roaming the Libyan desert or the bedroom antics of the King of Lydia, his wife, and the palace guard.

Herotodus lived and worked during the decades on either side of about 450 BC, born in what is now Bodrum, Turkey, then a Greek town called Halicarnassus. We know that he traveled a lot and talked to a lot of people – although how much he traveled and how many people he actually talked to is a subject for some debate.

The Roman orator Cicero, some three and a half centuries later, called Herotodus the “Father of History”.

More recent commentators have called Herodotus the “Father of Lies”.

. . .

Every now and then somebody reading one of my blog posts takes exception to a bit of data – a statistic, a description, or some discreet character assassination – that I may have included without having identified my source.

If what I was doing was serious research, or scholarly investigation, or even journalism, this would be a valid and important concern, but these essays are just my personal ruminations on subjects that interest me: I strive for accuracy, and I am prepared to defend any factual data that I use, but I don’t think footnotes are really necessary.

And let’s face it: some of my posts are long enough as it is.

A few of the folks who worked with me during my years in television newsrooms will no doubt remember my obsession with factual accuracy. I’m a product of an era when the comments of “unnamed sources” did not make it into front page news, and phrases like “some experts have suggested” or “individuals close to the case have indicated” were systematically – and sometimes brutally – rooted out of the aspiring journalist’s repertoire by the time he or she graduated high school.

When I’m assembling information for a blog post, I usually begin with a topic with which I am already pretty conversant, and then fill in the blanks from there. I look for primary sources where I can find them – if I am going to quote from the book of Genesis, for example, I go get the Bible down and look up the chapter and verse: I don’t pull something from the collected wit and wisdom of Jimmy Swaggert and hope for the best – and if primary sources are not available, I make sure that whoever I’m relying upon has the right credentials.

I’m not trying to expand the scope of human knowledge: I’m looking for context and connections. I’m just an interested amateur talking about things that I think are worth talking about.

History, like political commentary, is one of those fields that attracts a lot of amateurs.

The chemist or the molecular biologist is not likely to feel any sort of innate personal affinity with a hydrogen nucleus or a molecule of adenosine triphosphate. The subject matter demands rigor and discipline; nobody just assumes that he’ll be able to pick it up by reading a couple of articles in Discover magazine. The history buff, on the other hand, is dealing with people just like himself, flesh-and-blood men and women who got up in the morning and ate breakfast and argued with their children and fed their pets and worried about the rent just like everybody else. It’s easy to feel that you know more than you really do. There’s something very subjective about history: once you get past the names and dates, there always seems to be a lot of room for interpretation.

. . .

Over the centuries Herodotus has drifted in and out of fashion. As more scientific methods of approaching historical research led to new insights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars began to downgrade the old personal-narrative style of historical writing; Herodotus, Procopius, Tacitus and others were increasingly viewed as, at best, commentators, and at worst, fabulists and liars, using history as a vehicle for political, social, religious or cultural illustration without any real commitment to objective facts. This did not necessarily diminish their popularity as authors, but their contributions to modern understanding of the times in which they had lived were viewed as less meaningful from a historical perspective.

History, like the sciences, had become focused on attempting to document an objective reality.

In practice, of course, there is no such thing, at least not in terms of our ability to observe and communicate what we are able to learn. Everyone filters reality through a prism of personal experience, cultural expectations, and social limitations. [see also House of Mirrors, a previous essay in this blog] In today’s information-saturated world, separating fact from fable has become so difficult that we often don’t even bother any more. We’re like ants standing in the path of an avalanche of sand.

Herodotus wrote of a race of ants the size of bobcats living in the deserts of what is now Afghanistan who dug  through the sand for gold with which to line their tunnels.

News outlets routinely present a view of reality that owes more to the expectations of sponsors and stockholders than to any commitment to documenting real events. In Colorado and Texas educational authorities are working at this very moment to rewrite history books in order to remove anything that offends their present-day political outlook. Everyone has an axe to grind, or a skeleton to hide.

Father of History/Father of Lies: who do we trust?

What really matters in the end is not what the writer is doing, but whether the reader has the critical capacity that will allow him or her to categorize and qualify what is being said, separating useful data from the distracting overlay of the writer’s intentions. We’re not just hollow vessels waiting to be filled with information: each of us has the ability to apply logic and reason to the information, developing a context, a matrix against which we can judge each new fact as it appears.

Father of Lies/Father of History: does it really matter?

It’s not up to the historian – or the politician, or the preacher, or the pundit – to decide what is fact and what is fiction. All they can do is explain their particular point of view, to build up that mountain of sand grain by grain.

It’s up to us to find the particles of gold in it.

 

Bam. Pow. Kablooie.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

Anguish. Antagonist. Annihilate. Adept.

What do all these words have in common?

Venerable. Veritable. Volcanic. Variable.

I’ll give you a hint: I had learned to use all of them in a sentence by the time I reached the third grade.

Sinister. Selfless. Stygian. Saga.

Where does a kid who can barely reach doorknobs pick up a vocabulary like this?

Rickshaw. Radioactive. Restitution. Relativity.

Why, comic books, of course.

Like many boys my age, every time I could scrape up twelve cents (or even better, a quarter for the Giant Size Annuals) I ran downtown to the drugstore and bought the latest copy of “Journey into Mystery”, or “Strange Tales”, or the “Fantastic Four”, or “Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes”.

Since those nickels and dimes were not always easy to come by, I could rarely indulge in the luxury of following one hero, one title, from month to month. The resulting story lines were fragmented to the point of meaninglessness, but I didn’t care: the images jumped off the page – vivid and exotic in those days before color television – and the writing was extravagant and overwrought, filled with words and ideas that Dick and Jane and their silly little dog had never even imagined. Every sentence ended in an exclamation mark, every thought, every utterance was gravid with significance.

When the evil Mano annihilated his own home world in the ultimate act of rebellion, the word was wedded to an image that made it impossible to misunderstand. When Doctor Strange’s ghostly spirit form left his body to go roaming, passing through walls and even mountains as if they didn’t exist, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the writer meant by describing that transparent figure as ethereal. When the Mighty Thor pissed off his dad by falling in love with a mortal, there could hardly have been a better showcase for the meaning of wrath.

I saw in this morning’s news that a north Texas school had banned – and then un-banned – seven books, by authors that included two Nobel Prize laureates, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a prominent Native American diarist, among others. The books were banned because some parents were concerned about depictions of sexuality, of abuse, of racial injustice, and of philosophical self-examination that overstepped the conceptual boundaries they had set for their teen-aged children; un-banned, because the school authorities realized how meaningless that effort was. How many kids reach their teens without having been exposed – at least indirectly – to the weakness and wickedness that the human race is prey to? Red Riding Hood could have covered her eyes when the wolf approached her, but that certainly wouldn’t have prevented him making a meal of her; Rapunzel in her doorless stone tower was just about as safe from the influence of the outside world as she could be – right up until she let down her hair for the very first man who thought to ask her to do so.

This was not immortal literature. This was a handful of guys in smoke-filled rooms hunched over drafting tables, cobbling together outrageous tales of heroism and derring-do riddled with misspellings, continuity errors, and mind-bogglingly bad science.

What mattered was not the quality of the art form, but the fact that the heroism and the science — such as they were — were couched in a way that made them accessible and acceptable to the minds of children being inexorably conditioned to filter knowledge, discarding the unprofitable, the unpalatable, and the improbable on their way toward adulthood.

Foreboding. Felicitous. Fictitious. Feral.

And even more importantly, it was an unedited glimpse into the world of conflict and existential threat that we kids were about to inherit.

In the comics, nobody was sending us out of the room before the subject of nuclear armageddon was discussed; nobody told us that we were too young to worry about what pollution was capable of doing to our bodies; the conversations about racial tension didn’t suddenly slam to a halt every time we strolled in to ask for a cookie. Superman was saving the world, again and again, every month – which could only be happening if the world were at risk of being destroyed. In Dick and Jane’s universe there was no war, no violence, no murder, so there was no need for a Batman, an Iron Man, or an Invisible Woman to deal with those problems. We didn’t have to understand the social and economic pressures wrenching at the fabric of our society to know that Dick and Jane – and probably the dog, too – would not have lasted long in the world our parents were passing along to us.

Obviously there was a downside to this kind of back-door education. Problems, no matter how intractible, were always solved within a few pages, and usually by the convenient deux-ex-machina of super-powers, or super-science, or the application by the hero of an even greater level of violence than the bad guys could bring to bear. Those were examples that did not translate well into the “real” world of guerilla warfare, of the Kennedy assassination, of overpopulation, of the breakdown of traditional social structures. They did, on the other hand, demonstrate that ordinary people could be one radioactive spider-bite, one dose of cosmic rays, one science experiment gone awry, from becoming people who could save the world. They gave us an alternative to despair, and a list of new words to clothe the terrors that the best of parental intentions could not keep from us.

Ethereal. Elongated. Ectoplasm. Entomologist.

When I was a child, adults frequently objected to my reading material, comic books included. So much fantasy, so much violence, so much unreality – could this possibly be helpful or useful for the child?

The irony, of course, is that all this unreality, this fantasy, is sometimes the only tool a child has with which to make a meaningful connection with the “real” world. Without it, we would be forced to try to cope with the ills that beset our civilization armed with nothing but a spotted dog and a red ball. “A bunch of fairy tales,” goes the argument — oblivous to the fact that fairy tales of any given age are frequently a window into the terrible world that awaits a child, and in posing awful questions, sometimes suggest hopeful answers.

 

Journal: Friday, November 22

classroomOn a whim yesterday I wasted twenty minutes on a quiz on the Christian Science Monitor website: it was a condensed version of a test that 8th graders in a Kentucky school district had to take in 1912 to determine whether they were fit to proceed to high school.

How hard could this be, right? This is test aimed at kids who are — what? Thirteen? In Kentucky, in 1912.

It was a humbling experience.

The only area in which I can say I excelled was geography; everything else was a struggle. Math? I produced pages of meandering calculations resulting in lame guesses. English? I didn’t know my adverbs from my adenoids. American history? You would have thought I was born and raised in Latvia. (I know that the Civil War took place somewhere in between the War of 1812 and World War One, but questions about individual battles? Individual generals? Forget about it.)

A study presented at an American Heart Association conference last Tuesday suggests that kids are less physically capable than their parents were at that age: slower, weaker, less agile. This comes as no real surprise to most people, since we’ve long been aware that children are becoming more sedentary as video games and the internet — coupled with more parental anxiety about allowing kids to run around outside — replace bicycles and baseball. The question of intellectual achievement, however, has always been measured between and among groups of children contemporary with each other: we worry that American students don’t perform as well on math tests as Korean students, or on geography as well as German kids, but we aren’t comparing American students of 2013 with their American counterparts of a century ago, possibly because we know that it’s a contest they can’t win.

I’m a long way from the eight grade. At my age there is a certain “I’m sure I used to know this, but …” factor, but that’s a slim excuse at best. I should be able to compete with my grandfather as a child — I’ve had more time to forget, true, but I’ve also had more time to learn.

Another excuse we often hear is that there is just so much more to know now than in previous generations. This also is a pretty weak argument: yes, we have things like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the personal computer to keep up with, but our ancestors in 1912 were coping with the invention of the telephone and motion pictures, the electrification of the cities, the arrival of the automobile, and with the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg and British Empires. Keeping up with current events was no easy task then, either.

I scored 86% on the test — not bad, but hardly stellar. The average score for visitors to the CSM website? In the mid fifties, a definite failing grade.

What does all this mean? Are conservatives right when they tell us that the more sophisticated curricula and powerful teachers’ unions of today are diluting the value of education? Or is it that we aren’t going far enough to empower teachers and upgrade materials, as progressives insist?

I certainly don’t know the answer, but after struggling through that test yesterday, I’m definitely thinking more about the question.