Archive for November, 2009

Scientists Are Storytellers

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Scientists are storytellers. Numbers are their alphabet, mathematics their language.

With these tools, the rigor of repeated, controlled experiments, and the scientific method, scientists endeavor to take apart the clock of creation to figure out its inner workings. Then they share their discoveries with the rest of us.

I was recently in conversation with a friend when she made a disparaging remark about a third friend’s “new age” interpretation of an event. My friend would have preferred if our common friend had taken a rational approach, looking to science instead of to mumbo jumbo as a means of explaining the event.

The new age friend thinks it’s possible to get sick if you harbor unacknowledged emotions. The scientific friend contests that illness is a question of biochemistry. What strikes me is that even though my two friends may believe themselves to be in opposition, to my mind their two interpretations do not conflict with one another.

Of course the body is comprised of biochemical chain reactions and interplay. This does not rule out the role of emotions in health, however, since emotions themselves generate their own biochemistry, which interacts with the rest of the body.

I suspect that rather than having dramatically opposing viewpoints my friends use different language to describe the same phenomenon. I think trouble can arise, though, when one or the other considers their language and means of interpreting and discussing the world to be definitive.

I have occasionally noticed a shortness of temper among the scientifically-inclined for anything that smacks of religion, superstition, or supernatural. I confess that this attitude puzzles me, for it seems to me that practicing scientists are among the first to acknowledge the limitations of what they know.

If a practicing scientist  realizes that he or she is limited by current technology (what tools are available for measuring) and by current theory (how have other thinkers and experimenters imagined the world?), how is it that someone who is scientifically inclined can state without equivocation that any view of the world that is not scientific is false? Doesn’t that smack of religious fervor to you?

If my first statement is true, that scientists are storytellers, then scientists must necessarily join the ranks of religions and artists and storytellers. Religions create stories to help us understand the world and ourselves. Storytellers and artists help us make sense of the world and our experience of it through their art.

I think the aim of science is different from that of religions or art. Whereas religions look to understand the why and how of life, I’d argue that scientists are instead concerned with the what and how of life. And artists are keepers of the creative flame, expressing the now as well as the possible.

But at the end of the day, these are all stories. They each have their place and use. And although scientific stories may rule the day in current times, that doesn’t mean the other stories aren’t useful and important, nor that scientific stories are the last story type to evolve in the centuries to come.

Your Rights Are Circumscribed by the Ignorance of Others

Friday, November 27th, 2009

In practice, we have no rights that others don’t recognize.

Did you know you could change your name, legally, right now? (So long as you aren’t doing it to defraud.)

So, right now, I could say my name is… Blog Darrow, and that would be my name, legally. Then, five minutes later, I could change my name again, say to… Turbine Combine… or Sara Reilly… or Gertrude Morticia.

Lots of folks think that to legally change your name, you have to go to a judge and file paperwork and so on and so forth. The only exception to this belief seems to be when a woman marries. Then it’s accepted that she change her name without the intervention of a judge.

And there lies the problem. Because even though you can change your name on your own, and despite the fact that it isn’t true you need a judicial seal of approval, enough people are completely ignorant of the law that it makes it true in practice.

So although you could go into the bank and inform them that you’ve changed your name and you’d like to update your records, I’d wager you’d run into no small difficulty.

“Where’s your documentation?” they’d ask.

“I don’t need documentation,” you’d answer. “It is perfectly legal to change your name without going through the courts.”

“I’m sorry, but without proper documentation, there’s nothing I can do,” is their answer. (The legalities fly right by them, because in this era of documentation, application, registration, etc., how could it be possible that we could do something so momentous as change our names just because we wanted to, without official permission first?)

And there you have it: you’re essentially deprived of your right to change your name because other people who have power over you are ignorant of your (and their) rights.

You may be wondering why I am making so much of this point. After all, who wants to change their name? And if they do want to change their name, what’s the big deal about going to the courthouse, paying a fee, and getting the judge’s gavel swinging your way?

But of course the difficulty doesn’t lie in whether or not we can change our names easily, but rather in the fact that democracy works only as well as we, the people, are educated. If as a group we don’t know, believe, or understand something, then as a group we may make bad decisions. In our ignorance, we may be limiting the rights of others and/or of ourselves. And the rights that we may be limiting could be far more important than whether I want to call myself Monta Na for the next week.

Things to Be Thankful For

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

I’ve learned to appreciate the “little things” in life from several friends and mentors. One friend surprised me one day by pointing to the dishrack filled with drying dishes. “Isn’t that amazing?” she asked. “You just put them there, and a few hours later, they’re dry! Just like magic.”

Since then I’ve tried to develop the ability to appreciate all sorts of things, from sunrises to air-drying dishes.

Here’s a short list of things I’m grateful for:

  1. Hot, running water.
  2. Toilets.
  3. Emergency rooms.
  4. Nurses.
  5. Asphalt. (Ever driven on concrete, brick, or dirt roads?)
  6. Libraries.
  7. Postage stamps with adhesive backs. (The old version tasted terrible when you licked it or, if you used the water and sponge method, got your fingers kind of goopy.)
  8. Stop signs.
  9. Artists and musicians.

What’s on your list?

Florence King

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Years ago I read two of Florence King’s books: Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady and Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye (which later prompted me to read Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye). As the library only had those two books, those are the only two I read.

I recently came across her name and writing again, and I am quite glad. She is hilarious. You can go to Google Books and see her analysis of Racine’s Phèdre here, pages 9-18.


Making Good on a Loan

Friday, November 20th, 2009

The United States of America, when it wants to borrow money, does so by selling bonds.

Many branches of government (including cities and municipalities) and other institutions (like school districts) sell bonds as a way to raise money. These are called “municipal bonds”.

Companies also borrow money through issuing bonds. These are called “corporate bonds”. (Unless the company is borrowing money in the very short term; then it’s called “commercial paper”.)

The reason people buy bonds is that the municipality or corporation issuing the bond offers to pay the bond buyers interest. Essentially, the bond is a formalization of that timeless request, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Except that in this instance if “brother” can spare a dime, he’ll want to be repaid twelve cents.

If ten people approached you asking to borrow $100, you’d probably be most interested in lending your $100 to the folks who promised to pay you back with interest. I know I’d rather have $105 than $100, if I lent money to someone. If only one of the ten offered to repay you with interest and you knew and trusted that one person, it’d be easy to make the decision to lend that person the money.

But what if five people offered to repay you with interest? How would you make the decision then? If you knew all five well, knew the work that they engaged in, knew their characters, etc., you could probably make an informed decision. But if you didn’t know them at all, you’d have to rely on something or someone else. You might ask around town: Do you know so-and-so? Are they reliable? Trustworthy? etc. If you lived in a small enough community, this might be sufficient for making a good decision.

But what if these five people all hailed from different cities, or different states? How would you decide then? Well, you might ask to see their credit reports (their Fair-Isaac or “FICO” report). Someone with a good credit rating will seem like a safer bet than someone with a poor credit rating. You could rely on the credit ratings (on someone else’s judgment) to make your decision.

And that’s what people do when they buy bonds. They check out the credit ratings of the municipalities or corporations asking for money. However, whereas you or I might have our FICO credit score checked, institutions have different credit rating systems. For bonds, there are a number of agencies generally used to evaluate the creditworthiness of organizations issuing bonds, including Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, etc.

Now if you were to wonder, who is the most creditworthy institution you can borrow from, the answer would be… the government of the United States of America. And if you were to wonder why that is, the answer would be… because if they don’t have enough money to repay the loan, they can always print more money. In other words, the United States of America will always be able to repay its debts, because it controls the printing presses.

(But here’s a question I have. If printing too much money causes inflation and thus devalues the worth of the money, wouldn’t that mean that if a government did have to resort to printing more money in order to satisfy its debts, it would actually be devaluing the worth of what it repaid? Effectively, printing more money to satisfy debts would reduce the worth of the money repaid, which would be similar to paying back only a percentage of the loan.)

The problem with lending and borrowing money right now seems to be twofold. First, individuals and banks are afraid to lend money, largely because they aren’t sure of the worth of the underlying assets. Second, the validity and accuracy of the rating agencies have been called into question, since it’s been discovered that they were blithely rating very risky investments as safe, which led to the mortgage loan crisis, which in turn led to the overall economic crisis.

But, according to the reporting spearheaded by This American Life in 2008 with a follow up in 2009 called “The Giant Pool of Money”, there’s more money than ever available for investing and lending and, essentially, restarting the (global) economy. But no one will budge, because everyone’s afraid.

It’s like a colossal game of chicken, but in reverse: no one wants to make the first move.

Lending Divinity a Helping Hand

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently of the kindness of strangers and of friends, and I was remembering the story from the Christian Bible of Jesus telling folks that when they help the poor and the needy they are in fact helping him. (After a quick internet search, it looks as if the passage I am referring to is in the Christian Bible, New Testament, Book of Matthew.)

As I’ve been thinking of kindness and charity quite a bit recently, I find that this saying attributed to Jesus gives me pause:

Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my
brothers{The word for “brothers” here may be also correctly
translated “brothers and sisters” or “siblings.”}, you did
it to me.

(All quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), which is part of Project Gutenberg. The parenthetical statement comes from the WEB.)

I understand that traditionally this passages means we should recognize that we are all connected, we are all part of the universe, or, depending on your faith, we are all G-d’s creatures.

But if you look at it differently, here is a story of someone who is supposed to be divine and all-powerful, a god, after all, saying that he needs help.

025:035 for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty,
and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in;
025:036 naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me;
I was in prison, and you came to me.

I’ve always looked at this story as a call to help others. But what if we looked at it differently? What if we looked at it as a declaration not that the divine resides in all of us, even among the most needy and infirm, but instead that the divine can be infirm and needy and poor? Obviously, this interpretation doesn’t jibe well with the idea of an omnipotent god, but I think it bears considering nevertheless.

We spend a lot of time in the U.S. prizing health, wealth, and work. As well as beauty, youth, and whiteness. And if someone isn’t all of these or at least most of these, moral judgment is often passed. Yet, reading this Christian text in a Christianity-influenced culture, one wonders whether the Christian G-d isn’t saying that He/It/She can be weak and needy.

In that case, in helping someone less fortunate than yourself you are helping the divinity. Because being less fortunate would be a divine condition. As would the act of helping such a person be a divine condition. As such, there can be no moralizing that one isn’t “whole” (which I’ll use as a term to circumference the aforementioned qualities of health, wealth, work, beauty, youth, and whiteness)  because G-d G-dself isn’t “whole”, albeit divine. G-d can be needy and poor and in prison, as well as healthy, hale, and free.

Reading the text in this way approaches a Buddhist or Taoist sensibility of the world, with strength and weakness being intimately related. Alternatively, it could be read in a very Christian Catholic sense, as the interchange between helper and helped becomes a metaphor for the Holy Trinity, with the Helper being G-d the Father, the Helped being G-d the Son, and the action of helping, that relationship, being the Holy Spirit. Or, one can read the text with an earth-centered sensibility, in that all things have a season, a waxing and a waning: those who are strong now will be weak later, etc.

What I do think is that engaging in the role of helper and helped has more layers than first I understood.


Courts of Law and Love

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Maybe because my father was a lawyer and I was fascinated with the idea of arguing for justice, but ever since I was a child I’ve carried an imaginary court in my mind and have felt obliged to argue my case before judge and jury. (In retrospect, no wonder I never decided to become a lawyer–I was already secretly living the life of a litigation attorney!)

The odd thing is that I often felt guilty about things that weren’t in fact wrong. For example, in high school I was on the Junior Varsity tennis team. Our season ended several weeks before the end of the semester, and for those weeks, we could leave school an hour early. As an overachiever I felt guilty for leaving school early and would spend the entire walk home worrying that I would be “caught”… I don’t know, by a truancy officer? I’d imagine presenting my case for why it was okay for me to leave school early, trying to convince a stern, black-robed, and wig-adorned judge of my innocence. It’s as if my guilt damned me despite the fact that I had done nothing wrong.

(Obviously, there is an aspect of my personality that is very taken with rules. It’s probably the same part of me that is exceptionally literal.)

While rules are useful in creating order and facilitating communication, commerce, and other important things, they have their limits. This is obvious  to anyone with common sense and a heart. It is also recognized in the legal world, with its admonition to follow not only the letter of the law, but especially the spirit of the law.

Despite having an intellectual understanding of the limitations of rules, it was only the other day that  for the first time I had the thought: what if, instead of imagining a scenario in which I had to explain myself, defend myself, and argue my case, I imagined a scene filled with kindness and good will? What if instead of defending myself against accusations I experienced love and support?

Trying on new paradigms is hard for me. Sometimes when I shift to a new way of thinking it feels as if the floor bends and undulates beneath my feet. I used to find this experience quite discomfiting, until a friend kindly remarked that I could always go back to the old way of doing things if I didn’t care for the new way. With that realization I was free to try the new, knowing the old would welcome me back. (I don’t think I have once chosen to return to an old paradigm, but I continue to be buoyed by the knowledge that I could.)

Now as I mentally go through my day, projecting possible courses of action or reviewing my choices, every once in a while I feel… a positive regard, rather than a sense of needing to justify myself. In these moments, instead of feeling harried and defensive, I feel calm and peaceful. This small change, which happens only intermittently, surprises me in how different it makes my experience. In fact, it wasn’t until I began experiencing a positive scene that I realized how negative the experience was of imagining being tried in court. And I had been imagining this for close to thirty years. The mind reels.

At the end of the day, this is a question of attitude and self-regard. Whether my attitude toward myself is kind or harsh affects the “climate” in my mind. I can feel supported or deflated depending solely on how my imagination interprets events.

I am learning through this recent shift that I much prefer the kinder regard.

What Is Laziness?

Friday, November 13th, 2009

The other day I made a pejorative remark about someone I considered lazy. A young friend asked me why I had reacted so negatively, and, as I answered, I realized that I was having a hard time explaining what is so bad about laziness.

First of course we must define laziness.

Merriam-Webster says laziness is a “disinclination to work”. Wikipedia reminds us that sloth (which is one way to think of laziness) is one of the seven deadly sins in the Judeo-Christian tradition and defines laziness as a “disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to do so [emphasis mine]”. In this instance, it’s not so much that one can’t work but that one is able to work but won’t.

It seems by these definitions that laziness is bad because work is good.

But what if the first premise isn’t necessarily true, what if work isn’t good?

In the United States we have a tendency to value work so much that we believe the longer hours a person works, the more “serious” they are about their job. It is a matter of course that someone who wants to “get ahead” will put in long hours at their job.

On the other hand, I have heard that in Germany, a country whose cultural work ethic can be in little doubt, it is considered a sign of inefficiency to stay later at one’s job. Apparently, rather than being a positive trait, working longer hours indicates that you are disorganized. It would be considered embarrassing to need to work after the end of the regular workday.

Is it possible then that someone could be considered lazy in the United States because they didn’t work long hours but that same person would be considered efficient in Germany precisely because they didn’t work beyond the normal work day? Obviously, if what is an appropriate amount of work can vary according to culture and geography, then who is lazy and who isn’t could well change according to culture and circumstance.

Which brings me to my judgment of another as lazy. In order for me to conclude someone is lazy, I must first have a concept of what is an appropriate amount of work for that person to do. Furthermore, I must decide that the person not just can’t but won’t do the work. Obviously, there are some pitfalls in passing such a judgment.

But let’s pretend for the sake of argument that we can identify what the appropriate amount of work there is for a person to do and that we can identify that a person is capable of doing the work but simply doesn’t want to. Is that person lazy?

A friend told me the story of when her son was eight years old. The two of them were playing with a neighbor boy. My friend and the neighbor were making a model ship. Her son didn’t participate very much at all. At one point, my friend, a little exasperated by her son’s laziness, commented to the neighbor boy, “Josh isn’t doing much work, is he?”

The neighbor boy looked up, surprised, “But someone has to make us laugh.” The boy’s comment gave my friend pause. She realized that what she had dismissed as laziness was in fact a different type of effort. Her son was working at something else–at being silly and entertaining.

I’m no longer certain that laziness is so bad. I’m not convinced that it isn’t, either. At this point, what I know is that passing judgment on whether someone is lazy implies that one can also ascertain the meaning of work, of time, and of worth. That’s a tall order.

IQ, YouQ, We All Queue for IQ–

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

I have a friend who wanted to do some “mental gymnastics”, so she started doing online IQ tests. Neither my friend nor I have any faith in IQ tests measuring intelligence, a position convincingly argued by Malcolm Gladwell here, but insofar as my friend wanted to exercise her brain, IQ tests with their puzzles and problems are one way to go about it.

My friend ended up scoring 30 out of 30 questions correctly in one 15-minute online IQ test. A perfect score. However, she placed in the 96th percentile. Which begs the question, what would one have to do to score in the 99th percentile? An engineer I mentioned this to suggested perhaps it was a factor of how long it took my friend to complete the test. That’s possible; however, she doesn’t remember seeing time cited as a factor in the results reporting.

The test results stated that the Verbal section was both her best and worst subject. One paragraph congratulated her on her verbal abilities, while the next kindly advised her how to improve her vocabulary.

Hmm… I think Merriam-Webster has some vocabulary games she can look into…

Stacy Dynan, Painter

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I visited friends in San Francisco last year, and, after picking me up from the airport, we headed straight to Artspan, an artists’ studio show. Since it was San Francisco, of course it wasn’t a show featuring a mere three or four artists; rather, there were more like four hundred artists opening their studios to the public.

It was delightful. The studios were scattered among reclaimed military buildings on the bay. We trudged through mud and around puddles going from one set of galleries to another. I liked some of the art a lot, some a little, and some not so much. But all of it was interesting.

My friends were very taken with the paintings of one artist in particular, as was I. Stacy Dynan’s paintings are colorful, whimsical, and engaging. My friends ended up buying a wonderful large painting from her Over the Top series.

Stacy told us some of the background story. Her husband for a time was very taken by a book that propounded investment methods that seemed… risky to Stacy. After hearing her husband talk and plan enthusiastically about investment schemes that made no sense at all to her, she confiscated the book, tore up the pages, and used the fragments in the Over the Top series. Considering how well her paintings sold, it looks like the book was a good investment after all. :)