Archive for October, 2010


Sunday, October 31st, 2010

The little-known "PumpkinPieOSaurus Rex" (Street art by Bob Diven)

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity” by David Bodanis. By t.n.s.r. bob

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

“Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity” by David Bodanis. (Crown Publishing 2005)

“Our brain weighs only three pounds, but has about 100 billion active nerve cells nestled within it.  This provides as many electrical signaling stations as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.  Signals flash through our nerves at about 100 miles an hour; they take merely a few thousandths of a second to cross the synaptic gaps and continue in the next nerve.  Since the sodium pumps and neurotransmitters move faster than rocks fall or trees snap in the world outside, that’s why we can use their odd constructions to keep us intact as we dodge and stumble our way through the world.” (From Electric Universe)

We live in an electric world.  Of course I knew this, but I clearly did not understand it!  This small, delightful book is packed to the gills with clear explanations of the amazing electrical forces that make our life possible.

Although making constant reference to the ancient source of the trapped electrons that make up our planet, the history of electricity (for both our own and the book’s purposes) begins with our gradual discovery of electricity’s usefulness and — only later — its true properties.  It’s a fascinating story, touching upon events and names that are going to be familiar to most of us.  The true value of this book, then, lies in it’s clear explanations of just what the hell is going on with electricity as it exists in nature (including our own nervous system) and how we have “harnessed” it to our own industrial and practical purposes.

Considering last week’s book review, I must note that I was at first wary of (what hinted at being) a similarly “chatty-toned” book (that I was sold on after seeing the back-cover endorsement of Electric Universe by Bill Bryson, the author of the spectacular A Short History of Everything — previously reviewed on this blog).  But in this case I was won over by the sheer density of the informative content.  This book contains more than a few mind-bending and perspective-shifting revelations about a force that courses through us and around us every moment of every day.  (I am tempted here to share a number of them to spice up the review, but then I’d be depriving you of the delight of reading about them on your own).

As I mentioned, this is a “small” book, and is an easy read with extensive and equally-accessible “notes” and “further reading” sections in the back.  Reading it while you sit in your favorite chair will help you understand why (with the enormous space existing between electrons) your body doesn’t simply sink right through that chair and keep on going!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Loneliness of the Human Animal” by the not so revered bob

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I keep harping on about we humans being “social animals” because my understanding of just what that actually means continues to deepen (as it has again this week).

We are — it seems to me — more than just social animals.  We are profoundly social, in the sense of the word’s definition as “coming from, reaching to, or situated at a depth” or “all encompassing”.  One could almost call it a pathology were it not so “normal” to us.

According to some primate researchers, it is just this over-abundance of sociability that has set us apart from our living primate cousins by driving us to become the speaking, marrying, educating-our-young, society-building creatures that we are.

And I use the term “driving” advisedly:  So deep is our social need that we have domesticated a wide range of our fellow animals to keep us company (more than that, to be our friends: we have taken the wild wolf, for example, and turned it into a loyal canine companion that — uniquely among other animals — is able to interpret our intentions with as little as a pointed finger for an indicator)!

The dark side to our profoundly social nature is our capacity for deep loneliness and anxiety.

It does not take much time alone (or apart from the bustle of a community) to get an immediate reinforcement of our soft physical vulnerability to danger in the form of weather or accident (vulnerabilities that we have been successful at ameliorating through cooperative societies and technology).  But just as threatening to our sense of well being (and, at times, our physical well-being as well) is our emotional vulnerability.  For even the lone wolf owes his very existence to the social bonding of the pack (and may well need the pack to survive).

Surely our primitive ancestors came early to an awareness of how small and soft we are compared to other creatures and nature in general, and that even the edges of our known world were only the beginnings of others that we could not fully explore.

We mistrust other humans that lack sociability, from attachment-compromised children that confound our attempts to overcome their inability to bond to the socio- and psychopathic who just don’t care about their fellow humans the way that we do.  We count on — in truth have to rely on — others feeling the way we do about things (and thereby assume a great deal about the intentions of others, becoming easily unnerved when proven wrong).

Out of loneliness we created God: a constant companion that is never far away (except when we need him to be).  And yet we shun those who display a naked need for others.  Neediness triggers repugnance, like a familiar suddenly made strange by a contagious disease.  We admire the loner, even as we romanticize his or her isolation from others (and the attendant imagined freedom from social responsibilities).

And we marry — we seek out the most intimate bond available to us (cushioned by ritual and supported by society, myth and media) yet are crushed to find that even this cannot completely obliterate the yawning void of loneliness for every place and time.

We are so powerful compared to any other animal with technology to keep us safe, warm, fed and productive.  With science we penetrate the wilds around us and the distances beyond our view to comfort ourselves with understandings and wonders of biology and scientific exploration (in the process — not altogether without irony — eroding the comforts of our pre-scientific world views).  But nothing changes about us: us large-brained, social primates hungry for touch and understanding and communion.

In the endless biological horse-trading of evolution and natural selection, then, it turns out that we ache as the price of our progress.

It is our constant teetering on the edge of debilitating loneliness that makes us what we are, and though we work constantly to bend our path away from the edge of the abyss, the abyss never leaves us.

This, I think, is one of the greatest challenges to living in an age of science and evidence.  For most of our human history (and continuing today) we have hung a picture of God (or gods or spirits or what have you) over the ever-present hole in our living room wall — the hole through which we catch the occasional glimpse of the vastness of the universe; where everything that we cannot control awaits; where we are forced to confront a sense of evolutionary/cosmic/geological time that stretches back so far it is practically impossible for our in-the-moment-survival-primate-brains to fully comprehend; where the facts of biology make it ever harder to hold on to a belief that we humans are what the universe had in mind when the earth was forming; and (most chilling of all) that we are, indeed, as alone in the universe as we feared we might be.

Of course no neatly-framed picture (no matter what attributes we may ascribe to it) can answer any of the questions posed by the great void ever-lurking outside the hole it is meant to hide from our view.  The picture may save us from staring the void in the eye a few dozen times every day, but the very fact we have to hang something there is itself a reminder of what lies beyond (and that our deeper psyche will not forget).

I suspect that I have harbored an un-expressed hope that I could overcome the chill of that “void” by looking right into that damn hole and figuring it out.  And I can attest that that approach has borne some fruit.  But reading as much science as I have has also led to two other things, (one of which has followed the other):  1) It has brought me up to date with a general sense of what we now know in science and; 2) It has shown me the limits of what we know, as well as a sense of the limits of what we can ever know compared to the totality of what is to be discovered (or what the writer Christopher Hitchens refers to as our process of “knowing less and less about more and more”).

Still, I would rather my yawning ignorance be the better informed kind.  If this life is “all I have”, I would rather be conscious of that and thereby spend what time, talent and energy I do have exploring that life for all it is worth.  I would rather not take the comfort of myths that numb and, perhaps, serve in the end to only deepen my fear of the unknown.

To put it another way, I choose (as best I am able) to not cover up the hole in my own existential living room wall.  I work on my courage to look right into it, to make peace with it, to live in solidarity with every other living thing on this planet whose fate is no different than mine.  I work to be open to the wonder of that, and the satisfaction it brings to my profoundly social self.  This blog is the expression and documentation of my experience of this journey that we all share.  For whatever the ups and downs, successes and failures of our social bonds in our daily lives, we are, truly, a part of a community beyond numbering made up of every living thing that has ever walked, crawled, slithered, swum or flown across this planet.

In other words, I leave the hole in the wall just as it is, and decorate around it.  For even the existential loneliness that is the wolf ever-dogging the heels of we the most sociable of animals is something that we all share.  And it is the baying of that wolf that can, at times, make the moments of warmth and comfort in the company of our fellow humans so much more to be treasured.  The loneliness of the human animal is not a flaw nor a weakness (nor a sin or the result of any fall from grace): it is the inescapable expression of the social urge that makes us who and what we are.

t..n.s.r. bob


Sunday, October 24th, 2010

The "rev" spreading the word through a bit of street painting at the Farmers Market.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The English is Coming: How One Language is Sweeping the World” by Leslie Dunton-Downer

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

“The English is Coming: How One Language is Sweeping the World”  (Simon & Shuster, 2010) By Leslie Dunton-Downer

I’m of a mixed mind about whether to write a review of this book at all, as it’s one I’m pretty sure to abandon in the next day or two.  I will give its one middle chapter on the history of world languages another go and see if I can successfully shake the “wheat” of the information I’m after from the “chaff” of the writing, which brings me to the point of this half-hearted review: I feel this is a weak treatment of a timely subject: the rise of the English language as the dominant world language.

There are important facts in this book, and the author clearly has a command of them (for instance, there are more people speaking English in some form in modern China than in the United States).  And the larger, more subtle point that the author is making — through the device of presenting mini-histories of a large handful of “English” words — is that even words we identify as English actually have roots much more far-flung than one would think.

But I wonder if even this point — seemingly directed at calming some of the fervent resistance to the advance of the English language in other parts of the world — is not itself an extension of the general cheerleading, chatty tone of the book.  And that is the second pillar of my own resistance to this particular book: it’s tone and style of writing.  Although the subject drew me to choose the book, and the first sentences seemed to assure me of a good tale to follow, what actually followed pretty much immediately let me down.  I could see there was going to be a lot of pleasant chat, and not enough getting down to business (if it’s any indication, I found my mind wandering as I read to questions such as:  “Why was this book written”; and “Why did the editor picked this manuscript for publication?”)

In fairness, it looks like there are lots of good reviews for this book, so don’t let me turn you off from a book you might enjoy just because I’ve become someone who has a low tolerance for getting a low return on my reading time!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “My Shamanic Journey” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

We sat in a circle around the fire as a nearly-full equinox moon rose in the sky.  The leader of the night’s “Shamanic Journey” offered guidance and instruction before commencing the rhythmic rattling that would accompany each participant’s spiritual sojourn.  One of those instructions was to find a hole in the earth to enter into, and how to recognize good versus evil guides one might meet along the way (not unlike my Charismatic Christian training on how to “test the spirits”).

“This could be interesting”, I thought.

Though I’d been to church many times since my declension from that faith, this was my first “new age” ceremony as a full-blown rationalist, materialist, Darwinian atheist.

I’d come, however, for the opportunity to be with people around a fire on a New Mexico Fall evening, and to share the warmth that both would provide (and contribute, if I could: I’d brought my Irish frame drum).  The ceremony was optional.  But at some point during the leader’s instructions it occurred to me that I could, indeed, participate if I viewed the “hole in the earth” as a metaphor for a passage into another level or two of my own physical consciousness.  So, I settled in, listened to the shaking rattle and went along for the ride.

Free of the burden of trying to imagine what I thought everyone else was imagining, or what the leader imagined I would imagine, I was at liberty to slip into whatever state of mind occurred.

As it passed, it was a meditative state that I slipped into, as the rattle rattled along.  Relaxed as I was (and as un-focused as I could make myself) the sounds of the rattle began to differentiate (a phenomena I had experienced before with a group of drummers).  That was neat.  The surprising part was what came next: I had a “vision”.  Or, to be specific, I did, indeed “see” a clear image in my mind.  It was a shiny metal model of an airplane, though altered in the way that dreams are altered so that it carried elements of a real aircraft and elements of a toy, but not completely either.

And then the image drifted away (I let it) and I was back to just listening to the rattle, feeling the warmth of the fire, smelling the smoke, my eyes sometimes closed.

Then the image came back once or twice more, and the thought I attached to it was “You can take me anywhere”.  (When that idea arose, it released emotion in me in the same way that the affirmation of a preacher or psychic had in my earlier years).

So, having entered into the moment without any belief or expectation, I found myself having the same kind of experience that believers hope for.

What did that mean?

Well, as to the image, there is no evidence that my “vision” has any predictive or directive value in and of itself (except in the ways I’ve discussed before in it’s possible effect on re-setting my confirmation bias, or what I look for to occur in my life).

But as to the experience itself, it provided me another indication that nothing really changes when we release irrational belief.  For the universal human sensory experiences of a wide variety of phenomena are (and always have been) the essential stuff of religious and spiritual experience.  The preacher or the shaman does not create the experience, but both offer explanation and assign meaning to those experiences.  As I’ve said in other sermons, the business of religion is to take our naturally-occurring experiences and re-brand them as something exclusively available to a believer in a particular system (and to no other).

Yet despite (nearly every) religious leader’s insistence that “spiritual” phenomenon are a product of a particular belief, this is obviously not the case: for these experiences begin and end with us conscious humans, whether or not they end up providing commercial opportunity to the guru or faith healer.

If I were asked to name the most surprising discovery of this journey of mine (of leaving faith behind), it would be this: nothing really changes.  You would expect the very moon to fall from the sky (to hear the preachers and Imams say it), but the big secret that many of them may not even know (though they surely suspect it) is that life just sort of goes on as before.

Yes, I see things differently post-belief (and the usefulness of the term “meaning” — as usually applied to generally random events — is questionable).  But the sun still rises, food still tastes good on the tongue, and I continue to experience life as it occurs.

The trickiest part to accept, oddly, is that I have not become a different kind of human: my primate brain continues to seek out useful patterns; still tries to predict outcomes and; seeks — yes — meaning in events.  But one of the hallmarks of we humans is our ability to step outside of our animal brains and consider ourselves, almost as separate creatures from our own minds.  It is this ability that I took advantage of on the night of the “Shamanic Journey”.

And so I had a completely non-spiritual “spiritual” experience.  A non-religious religious experience.  An experience of God where there was no God.  All of that as a bonus to a fine evening outdoors by a fire surrounded by gentle people under a bright Fall moon.

Life can be very, very good.  With or without belief.



Sunday, October 17th, 2010

"Raptors in aisle 3"

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945″ by Tony Judt, by t.n.s.r. bob

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

“Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945″ by Tony Judt  (Penguin Books, 2006)

I caught the last bits of a repeat of an earlier interview with author Tony Judt on The Charlie Rose Show in August (re-run, I would guess, because of the author’s death at 62).  I was immediately interested in his 2006 book on the history of postwar Europe, and tracked it down at my beloved local library.  Little did I know that it was one of those books that would take me a month (one renewal and a new check-out) to complete!  It’s been worth the work.

The events that make up European history from the defeat of Naziism to (roughly) today are now far enough in the past for some meaningful perspective, and yet recent enough to be completely relevant to the issues facing Europe in particular and the West in general, today.

Judt’s style is concise and highly readable, yet carries a gravity that inspires confidence in his conclusions.  It is almost dizzying to contemplate the sheer number of countries and rulers that are encompassed in this book: a study of all of the varied cultures, political movements, ideologies and governmental experiments of so many countries, large and small (and — ever since World War Two — in the shadow of the U.S. and it’s relationship with the Soviet Union) provides an all-you-can eat buffet of the many different incarnations of democracy, social democracy, socialism, communism and monarchies that were (and continue to be) tried out in postwar Europe.

(One thing that struck me is the perspective such an education gave me on the current conviction of America’s far right that we are living under a would-be Socialist state.  I can tell you that even a casual reading of this book will show one what a real Socialist or Communist state is like and brother, we ain’t it).

Enough to satisfy my own vanity, the U.S.A. does play a role in this book.  It almost has to!  For Judt goes into detail about how America’s Marshall Plan (imperfect though it was) was fundamental to the rebuilding of an economically self-sufficient Europe (a sad contrast to Europe’s revival is provided by the decades of bleak economic stagnation that faced a “victorious” post-war England!).

It’s all in here: the immediate task of rebuilding Europe after a World War, the beginning, middle and end of the Cold War, the famous events in the Gdansk Shipyards, Perestroika, NATO and even popular culture.  It is really a breathtaking sweep of history that all of us have lived at least a part of (though generally watched from this side of the Atlantic).

If you don’t want to take my word on it, Postwar was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, and was also a Time and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year.

Tony Judt died this last August of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  For a fascinating and compelling obituary on the author, see this article from USA Today.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Wrong About the Same Thing” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Twice in the last weeks I’ve attempted to draw a graph depicting my (informed though subjective) impression of the tendency of Homo sapiens sapiens toward irrational belief: the vertical line represents a percentage of the population, and the horizontal line represents a continuum of belief (with the totally bat-shit crazy stuff at the far left and the completely rational evidence-based belief at the far right end of the scale).

On my first try the thing looked like a ski slope with most folks on the irrational belief side, and a slim few on the rational end of the scale.  After some discussion I’ve since revised it to be more of a bell curve, with a smaller number of people on the crazy side, a huge bulge in the middle that gradually (yet quickly) drops off to a small percentage on the completely rational end.

I was motivated to do this by the realization that even the average among us harbors any number of irrational beliefs.  A biological parallel presents itself immediately: it is almost like the way each of us carries untold bacteria and microbes in (and on) our bodies.  Or the way in which we seem (historically speaking) to most often experience mutations on a link in our DNA that is not active or critical to our health and development, only occasionally experiencing a change that threatens our existence (just as most bacteria are not a danger to the health of ourselves or others).

In the same way, I’m coming to the (not original with me) idea that irrational belief is ineradicable — just like the billions of bacteria that make up more than half the cellular weight of our physical bodies.  This, of course, begs the question: if (as science tells us) some 90 percent of the genetic material that we carry in our bodies is — technically speaking — not human, but bacterial or viral, would we still be human without it?  And if we would cease to function as discreet physical beings were we to be suddenly free of all of that “foreign” material, can we really call it “foreign” or “non-human at all?

(Of course this last point is more an esoteric than a practical concur: more an issue of perspective than anything else).

The difference, of course, between bacteria and irrational belief is that we can function perfectly well without the latter, if not the former (though it takes a surprising amount of effort to counter the tendency toward irrational belief, it can be done — unlike any attempt to rid ourselves completely of bacteria).

There are, naturally, many who would disagree, and consider HOPE so important, that they consider it a valid criticism of Atheism that it cannot provide that commodity in sufficiently digestible doses.  But these are the same that point to that huge bulge in in the middle of my “belief bell curve” as evidence that God (by any of the popular brand names) must surely exist (otherwise, why would so many people believe in Him, her or it?).

One thing that the reality of so many people sharing a belief in God (on the one hand, and the thousands of other irrational theories on the other) does, indeed, prove is not that God (or any of the other mild to wild ideas we humans believe) is real, but that it is easily possible for a large number of people to be wrong about the same thing!

Like bacteria, there are really only a few truly virulent forms of irrational belief that will kills us (or lead us to kill each other).  Even so we take care to wash our hands and take precautions that will decrease our chances of catching a cold, say, or inoculate ourselves against this season’s most likely flu bug.  (And behind the scenes, our government pours a judicious sum of money into constant research to spot the next potential population-decimating plague that is ever ready to jump us).  In the same way, each dose of evidence and reason we take into our minds boosts our immunity to the fever of the irrational.

Is it worth it?  Is it a worthy use of a portion of our time and energy to learn, to investigate, to do battle with our own natural irrationality?  I think so.  Most of the time we can endure the typical cold as a cost of being social and active among our fellow humans.  But with so many of our fellow hominids hot with various fevers of irrational belief, the more of us that are healthy in that way the better.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, October 10th, 2010

I think this photo supplies its own caption! (My friend Gaea sent this photo to me).