Archive for July, 2011

Note to Robert Ettinger: the best dreams are waking

July 30, 2011

Robert C. W. Ettinger: now there was a guy who understood that “life only avails, not the having lived.” Or maybe not.

He gave us cryonics, separated the Splendid Splinter’s head from his bat, inspired Woody Allen (“Sleeper“), and now seems to have shuffled off this mortal coil.

I know I shouldn’t make light of anyone’s passing, but this is just too rich.

“Life is better than death, healthy is better than sick, and immortality might be worth the trouble.” I don’t disagree. It might be.

It might also be more sensible to recognize our personal mortality as a small but crucial part of the much larger and more enlivening story of life on the grand scale, at the species and cosmic level where death and life are yin and yang. It’s really not all about me, or you, or her. It’s about us, about we who’ve been privileged against all odds to wake up in the universe and begin to sniff around, we who have a golden opportunity to prepare our immediate successors for their own moment of lucidity and aspiration.

Links in a chain, we are. Not a chain dangling from a hook in a meat locker, but a chain of genes and dreams stretching beyond every perceptible horizon.

Still, I’m entirely with Mr. Ettinger in his lust for more life. Give me more experience, please. “So when I come back I’d like to try skiing,” and a few dozen other risky ventures. I’d like to meet my great-great-great… grandchildren. I’d like to know how the story turns out.

Older Daughter said last night she’s miffed that there’s this great, vast universe out there and she can’t reach it. I know what she means, and I think I know what Robert Ettinger wanted. But the thing is, we can reach it. What else is an expanded and evolving cranial capacity for, besides foraging and fending off predators more efficiently, if not to dream?

As she and Dumbledore and Emily Dickinson remind me, just because something’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real. The brain is wider than the sky and warmer than a deep freeze. It’s a pretty good time machine and rocket ship too.

Montaigne, the first blogger

July 28, 2011

That Steely Dan song with the lament for “your everlasting summer fading fast” has been playing in my head, I’d best get on with my reading list…

The delightful opening of Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne is enticing but also a bit misleading. It immediately registers as a salvo against the narcissism and self-absorption of this digital information age of ours, but almost as immediately veers from critique to celebration.

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self.

Self-exploration  has the potential to mirror the species, and to create unum amidst all our pluribus. Bakewell’s thesis is that Montaigne, more than any other intellectual in the western tradition, is responsible for seeding our consciousness with that insight.

In the spirit of Bakewell’s Montaigne, I’ll let you know.

Bakewell on Montaigne in the GuardianOther philosophers profiled in the Guardian, including William James

a ship that’s seen better days

July 23, 2011

Had a day-&-night out with Older Daughter yesterday, beginning with the Indian veggie lunch buffet (delicious, but they were too slow restocking the cauliflower fritters) and proceeding eventually to McKay’s Bookstore (she found me a compendious celebration of Northern Exposure  for just 75 cents) and the Sounds game (free tee-shirts).

Along the way she requested a stroll in Centennial Park, undeterred by 95 degree discomfort. (“Sweltering,” she explained, is when you’re in full catcher’s gear and it’s 110.) We ambled upon this familiar old relic, which for some reason I’ve often noticed but never investigated. As I guessed, it’s a remnant of the fabled 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

Another unusual relic from the exposition is the bow of the dreadnought Tennessee. It’s a large cement monument on the 25th Avenue side of the park, and it looks exactly like what it is – the tip of a ship. There’s even a ladder attached to the back of the monument to enable visitors to “board” the ship, although nowhere onboard or near the monument is there any identifying plaque. The bronze decorations on the ship’s prow are stunning, and they’re actually from the Tennessee. If they’re any indication, late nineteenth century battleships were as beautiful as they were functional. Sadly, this ship has seen better days. The outer layer of concrete is cracked in many places, with chunks missing here and there. At 112 years old, it’s obviously too delicate to pressure wash, but it’s a shame to see such a stately monument deteriorating. Nashville Landmarks Examiner

Our conversation indicated that in matters sartorial and stylistic, I also qualify as a relic in need of restoration. Like Tennessee I’ve seen better days too.

Challenge accepted! More days like yesterday will surely postpone my own inevitable deterioration, or at least dignify it with pleasure and purpose.

“Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore”

July 22, 2011

“If you want to build a better boat, don’t teach people carpentry. Teach them to long for the sea.” Neil deGrasse Tyson attributes that to St. Exupery, in an interview with the Friendly Atheist. Well, they need to learn nautical expertise as well as longing, but the point applies. We’re not doing a very good job of waking young people to the power of a driving dream.

Tyson wants to send Younger Daughter’s generation to Mars. I’d settle for its moral equivalent, whatever that might be. “At some point, you gotta look up.” Gotta make a plan. We need heroes in the educational pipeline. “How much would you pay for the universe?” A ha’penny sounds like a bargain to me.


Lose your self, gain the world

July 21, 2011

Excellent new TED Talk from actress Thandie Newton,  whose adopted dramatis personae taught her that our concept of the separate, essential self is a “projection based upon others’ projections” too often rooted in fear and ignorance and the denial of death. It obscures the essential relatedness we all know in infancy, devalues “bountiful” reality, withholds the privilege of enjoying our improbable, finite lives.

A stirring call to awareness, “a breath at a time.” Her recognition of “oneness” joins my growing list of “secrets of life” that make happiness possible. It was already there under the aspect of the Buddha, but this is a fresh and inspiring way to say it.

Sitting and thinking is harder than it sounds

July 20, 2011

Still ruminating on Professor Forni’s dichotomy between communicating just because we can, because we have the Internet, and thinking because we must, because we have thoughts worth thinking. He has a point. We talk too much, we who’ve established these little beachheads and megaphones in the blogosphere and twitterverse and on Facebook and Tumblr and etc. etc. We listen less than we speak. We don’t even listen well to ourselves.

We should be still, sometimes. Read a book cover to cover, listen to an entire lecture, follow a single train of thought to conclusion before jumping to another breathless snippet of “feed” in the never-ending stream of everybody else’s fluttering consciousness. Try to really know a singular point of view.

Sit. Think.

On the other hand, just sitting does not always conduce to constructive thinking. The will to communicate something worthwhile may need to be summoned out of solitude, strengthened by the possible presence of communicants. Dawn reflections may sometimes require the prod of prospective publication.

As always, the search for a happy medium is complicated.

Against the tyranny of hyperconnection

July 18, 2011

An important, uncomfortable challenge to everyone who spends a lot of time attempting to communicate online(that seems to be most of us, nowadays, some more than others):

…we communicate because we can and not because we have something important to say.

We invest in the swapping of trivialities, precious time that we could use for serious reflection. I want to believe that when we stumble upon black holes of silence on the net, that depends at least in part on someone reacting against the tyranny of hyperconnection.

There must be brave and smart souls who came to realize that thinking is more important than communicating. I see them in my mind’s eye a brave minority, sitting in silence, pondering and planning — the way it used to be.

That’s Johns Hopkins Professor P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility, quoted in the Times yesterday. He’s right, I think. I’m going to try and spend more time in silent reflection, in the good company of receptive and nonjudgmental friends like Moleskine and Leuchtturm, in no special hurry to ring the “post” bell.

But… the ultimate goal of thinking, still, is to arrive at something worth communicating. It would just be nice to arrive there calm and sui compos, with breath and sanity intact. Quality matters most, not Quantity.

Niall Shanks, 1959-2011

July 17, 2011

Very sorry to learn this morning of the death of an old friend and colleague, Professor Niall Shanks. [Obit]

Dr. Niall Shanks (b. January 18, 1959), who served as President of the Tennessee Philosophical Association in 1993, died early Wednesday morning, July 13, 2011.  In 2005, Dr. Shanks became the Curtis D. Gridley Distinguished Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Wichita State University. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Leeds in 1979, a Master’s from the University of Liverpool in 1981, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Alberta in 1987. Dr. Shanks was Professor of Philosophy & Humanities and Adjunct Professor of Biological Sciences and Physics & Astronomy during his career at East Tennessee State University from 1991-2005.  Shanks’ early research focused on quantum mechanics, but later his interest centered on evolutionary biology and its implications for medical theory and practice. He was the author of numerous articles and books in the history and philosophy of science, including the highly popular book entitled, “God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory” (Forward by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 2004/2007). His service to our community and universities and his contributions to science and philosophy will continue to inspire, enthuse, and enthrall us. He will long be remembered and missed by his many students, colleagues, and friends.

We taught together in Johnson City, Tennessee in 1992-93. He was acerbic but ultimately funny and good-humored about living in the Appalachian wing of the Bible Belt. (“I am what my neighbors call a ‘ferner,’ for I am a transplanted Englishman who grew up in Manchester in the north of England“-Fighting For Our Sanity in East Tennessee) He was a good office mate and pub companion. I gave him a tour of Vanderbilt in 1993, just before he insulted the keynote speaker and the night before he preceded me in election as president of the Tennessee Philosophical Association. He advised me not to hide my talents under a bushel basket.

We exchanged just a couple of notes after he landed in Kansas in 2005. He had a strange repulsion/attraction to the heartland of creationism, he admitted. I miss him.

The best part of Harry Potter is the epilogue

July 15, 2011

Today, a pre-dawn reflection at 3:20 a.m.

Just back from Regal Hollywood 27’s midnight screening: the best part of Harry Potter is the epilogue. And Harry’s refusal of invincibility was a very wise choice indeed. The magic continues.

Good night. Good morning.

How does the light get in?

July 14, 2011

Spent some of my morning yesterday with my Mother-in-law in the waiting room of a renowned ocular physician (“Lasik surgeon to the stars,” accomplished ballroom dancer, string musician, humanitarian, fugitive of Mao’s cultural revolution, Horatio Alger immigrant story), following up on her recent cataract surgery. A video loop of old testimonial local TV news stories about the doctor’s previous patients was curiously interwoven with episodes of “I Love Lucy” and a duet of “Danny Boy” with the doctor accompanying Dolly Parton. A strange summer moment, for sure, but mostly it has me pondering this morning the incredibly evolved light-sensing organ we tend to take too much for granted. The creationists are quite right to notice how amazing it is, but wrong to presuppose its defiance of nature.

The embattled Richard Dawkins apparently has an achilles heel with respect to what we could euphemistically call the process of sexual selection (see #elevatorgate and @rebeccawatson for the sordid details), but he’s still a masterful and reliable explainer of other complicated biological things. Here’s an entertaining eye-opener: