Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Inanity Left and Right

Our local newspaper reported the other day that Sharon Stone, actress, had opined that the Sichuan earthquake was due to "bad karma," accumulated because of the Chinese government's oppression of Tibet. It's nice to see that stupidity isn't confined to one segment of the political spectrum. I'm sure you remember when some evangelical preachers attributed Hurricane Katrina to the sinful lives of the residents of New Orleans. Didn't the liberals just scream at that one? I'll bet that Ms. Stone found it just terrible that those fundamentalists were "blaming the victims."

I don't believe that natural disasters are retribution for human behavior, nor that they can be averted by prayer or sacrifice. In some cases, as when an earthquake causes a dam to break, human actions may serve to aggravate the effects of a natural disaster. And, where human actions produce physical effects, such as increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere, there may be physical consequences. But volcanoes erupt due to the build-up of magma pressure under vents, hurricanes are caused by a particular weather pattern over warm ocean waters, and earthquakes are caused by tectonic stress along fault lines. The Sichuan earthquake was due to India's inexorable northward movement (at the rate of about 5 cm per year) pressing against the rocks underlying western China.

There are two lines of reasoning here, one positive and one negative. In the first place, we have adequate explanations for natural disasters. The force of India's collision with the Asian landmass is well-known, and has been strong enough to produce the Himalaya Mountains and the Hindu Kush. The existence of faults in Sichuan is also well known. (I might note that the numerous landslides along stream beds, creating temporary dams, indicate that the earthquake struck along established fault lines. Streams tend to follow faults.) Since this earthquake, like Hurricane Katrina and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, can be explained by well-established causes, there isn't any room for an explanation based upon the vices of the inhabitants or the excesses of the government.

On the other hand, even if we weren't entirely sure of the causes of such events, there is no mechanism by which vice, political oppression, or religious ceremonies could affect them. "Bad karma" is a nice way of saying that, if there were justice in the world, the Chinese government has earned a substantial amount of retribution. But the concept of "karma," like the afterlife, has been developed precisely because there is no justice in the world. There is plenty of empirical evidence that good and pious communities have suffered from natural disasters, while sinks of vice and debauchery have enjoyed immunity. The universe is morally neutral, and our petty moral considerations have no bearing on physical events.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Baseball as a Political Portent

I don't for a moment suggest that one start forecasting the outcomes of political contests by the results of sporting events. Why, that would be as silly as using astrology to decide who the next President might be! And we all know what Jim Morrison said of astrology, "I think it's a bunch a' bullshit." Enough said!

I would like you to consider, however, the following state of affairs. Hillary Clinton, the junior senator from New York, and Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, are locked in a tight race for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As it happens, each of those states has two major league baseball teams, one in each of the two leagues. At this time, on May 26, 2008, Memorial Day, here is how those four teams stand in their respective divisions:

New York Yankees (American) - fourth in the Eastern Division
New York Mets (National) - fourth in the Eastern Division
Chicago White Sox (American) - first in the Central Division
Chicago Cubs (National) - first in the Central Division. (The Cubs are listed as tied with the St. Louis Cardinals, but the Cubs's winning percentage is .580, while the Cards are at .577.)

If the two New York teams were usually losing teams, and the two Chicago teams were perpetual powerhouses, this would be unremarkable. As it happens, however, the Yankees have been leaders in their division most of the time in the past ten or twelve seasons, and the Mets have had some good teams, as well. On the other side, the Cubs have defined the term "lovable losers" for six decades, though they have a had a few decent teams in recent years. So, for both Chicago teams to be riding so high, and both New York teams flirting with the cellar, is a highly unusual circumstance.

How can we take it, if not as an omen? The stars are not aligned in New York's favor this year; this is the year of Illinois. If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Senator Obama.

(I could also mention that the last big fight I know of between candidates from New York and Illinois was the 1860 Republican contest, in which the Illinoisan Lincoln handily took the party's nomination from the New Yorker, Seward.)

The Reading Trap

When I started posting here, some months ago, one of my goals was to post reviews, review articles, and essays, based on my reading. I got as far as listing the books I read in May, 2007, and making some comments on them. Here it is, late May of 2008, and I'm a year behind in posting about my reading. I'm also close to a year behind in my periodical reading. I have been reading today in the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs. I have finished the July/August 2007 issue of The Atlantic, but I have only completed the June 2007 issue of Commentary. I'm even behind in the weekly magazines: yesterday I read the April 26, 2008, issue of The Economist, while today I got through the April 28 issues of Information Week and U. S. News & World Report.

Then there are the books, both mine and the Pikes Peak Library District's, which are piled up beside my bed and in the study, unread or partially read. I made good headway into the backlog I had accumulated before New Year's, but more books keep throwing themselves into my path. Old books and new books, fiction and non-fiction, collections and anthologies. And series!

I had the aim of getting rid of some of the books in my study, and I boxed some up and donated them to the library. But there were some others I decided I need to read before I disposed of them. I have a lot of books by Pierre Berton, a Canadian journalist and historian. I haven't lived in Canada in a long time, so I should be able to live without these books. But the two-volume set on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway - The National Dream and The Last Spike come to over 1,000 pages.

I have The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart, and I was going to read it and then give it away. But my wife read it first, and she not only liked it, she discovered it was the third volume in a four-book series. So now I've read The Crystal Cave, and I'll need to read The Hollow Hills, before I can even start on The Last Enchantment. This isn't getting me anywhere very quickly.

The long and short of it is, I don't have as much time to blog about books as I hoped to have, because I'm spending way too much of my time reading the books in the first place. I'll try to do better in future, but I make no promises.

All contributions on books and the experience of reading are welcome here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Connection and compassion

I recently wrote the following essay as homework for a class on Shin Buddhism.

I see two great forces or trends in the universe: connection and compassion. Mathematically, I would call them strange attractors – the apparent equilibrium or configuration points about which the material universe seems to oscillate or move towards. My evidence of this is that the universe began as a super hot explosion of protons, neutrons, electrons , gamma rays and other fundamental particles. Within a short amount of time, it began to coalesce into stars, dust clouds, planets, galaxies, star clusters, galactic clusters – connection on grander and grander scales. On the earth, there was a glob of chemicals and minerals, then life appeared, connecting these interactions together in a perpetuating sequence. Life organized itself into cells, cells ingesting other cells, multicellular organisms, clusters, consciousness, then the organisms organised themselves into herds, mating pairs, families, tribes, villages, cities, nations, empires, nation states, multi-national organizations, sole-proprietorships, businesses, trade networks and guilds, corporations, multi-national corporations etc. Connection on ever grander scales.

The quality of this connection has not always been very good. Families were often formed by violence or threat of violence against women so they wouldn’t leave. Empires were forged on violence. Corporations got their start with exploitation and wage slavery. Nevertheless, once a connection was established, forces began to make this connection more compassionate, the 2nd great force. Early cities were dictatorships, then we had laws and principles of justice. The concept of rights was formed. Ethical systems devloped teaching conduct toward the weak and the oppressed. Moral and spiritual teachers questioned the rightness of the subjugation of foreign nations, ethnic minorities and women. Some see all the problems in the world today and despair. I believe they despair because they have not studied enough history on a grand enough scale to appreciate how far we have come and because they do not realize that they are a manifestation of the universal force for even greater compassion. As horrible as famines and slavery are, the fact that we even hear and care about these things on the other side of the world is evidence of great connection and compassion. Far greater than existed in the world even 50 years ago. Humans pursue connection first, even if the connection is wretched, exploitive and violent, then work to make the connection more compassionate.

How can this work? How can it be a manifestation of anything universal?

Computer scientists have invented something they call a “neural net” – a network of small microprocessors. Brain scientists theorize that human brains form such a “neural net”. Such nets are capable of learning, but in an unexpected way. If you were to program a traditional computer to, say add up numbers in a column, you would write out a set of instructions step by step and have the computer follow them. Not so with neural nets. After you set the net up, you give it the set of numbers and see what it does with them. Not surprisingly, it likely won’t add them up. No problem. You give the net a feedback loop with the difference between what you want and what it did. Then give it the numbers again. This time it comes a little closer to adding things up. Keep on doing this over and over again with different sets of numbers and eventually the neural net “learns” how to add up numbers. Then ask the question, where, in the neural net is the instruction on how to add up columns of numbers? Answer – in no particular place. Each little processor has a rule it made up for itself based on feedback from its neighbors, but there is no place you will ever find anything like a list of rules on how to add up numbers. The information is distributed partially in every processor in the net. If you remove or damage any particular processor, the net operates a little less accurately for a while and then re-teaches itself how to add accurately again.

This strikes me as the way compassion and connection must be embedded or encoded in the universe. Every proton, neutron, electron, star, molecule, cell, animal, person, bird, rock, plant has a piece of the overall program. This is the fundamental goodness of life and existence.