April 29, 2012

The Dirt on Climate Change

The Good News: According to data compiled by Harvard and NASA, the effects of climate change have been delayed on the East Coast of the United States.

The Bad News: The reason for this has been the high levels of particulate pollution (mostly sulfur emissions from coal-burning power plants) in the atmosphere that reflect incoming sunlight.

The Mixed News: Successful efforts to reduce particulate pollution levels in the atmosphere (good news) mean that warming levels on the East Coast are catching up to global averages (not-so-good news).

The Interesting News: China may be about to undergo a similar cycle as they begin serious efforts to tighten pollution standards.

Based on an article by Kate Taylor posted in TG Daily.

April 28, 2012

A Story For Our Times


In the late 13th Century, Italy was a battleground for the rival imperial interests of France and Germany. The battle had swayed back and forth, but at long last, French supremacy seemed assured, thanks in large measure to the election in 1281 of Pope Martin IV, a Frenchman ready, willing, and able to serve the interests of the French royal house. The French dared to dream not merely of extending their power and influence throughout all of Italy, but even to Constantinople and the Eastern Church. All Christendom would be united under the French banner.

All was well until the Easter Monday of 1282. A handful of French soldiers garrisoned in Palermo, Sicily, got a bit drunk as the town waited for Vespers, the ringing of church bells at sunset to signal the beginning of a night-long prayer vigil. A drunken French sergeant was drawn to a married woman and began following her around, showering his unwanted attentions on her. The husband, angered beyond endurance, pulled a knife and stabbed the French soldier to death.

This unleashed a torrent of pent-up hostility towards the French “occupiers,” hostility carefully cultivated for some time by agents of Constantinople eager to frustrate French ambitions. The bells tolled as men ran throughout Palermo shouting “Death to the French.” By Tuesday morning, some  two thousand French men, women, and children lay dead. The French were ultimately ejected from Sicily, Spain entered the fray, and French dreams of an empire stretching from Paris to Constantinople were doomed.

Foreign forces in a strange land, resentful locals, religious rivalries, unbridgeable cultural gaps, competing interests eager to foment trouble—kings and presidents drawing their grand designs, only to find them ruined by the unpredictable acts of soldiers wounded in spirit by the bludgeoning that war and occupation inflict on the moral compass. Sound familiar? It should.

It has been said of those who forget history that they are doomed to repeat it. For sure, but there is more to it than that. War is embedded deep within our genetic code. Killing remains the ultimate means of addressing injustice when all else fails. And all too often, all else does fail, leading us to repeat history over and over.

The Terminator had it right; it is in our nature to destroy ourselves. Until we fix that, we can only look forward to more of the same, be it Sicily in 1282 or Afghanistan in 2012.

The inspiration for this essay came from A. N. Wilson's book, Dante in Love. This Wikipedia article contains an excellent summary of the events leading up to and following the War of the Sicilian Vespers.

April 26, 2012

Mind Over Matter

Where does mind come from? Our bodies are made up entirely of physical components--molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles. Lurking somewhere in all that is the non-physical property we call mind. How do we get from quarks to questions?

Emergence is one answer. Panpsychism is another. Panpsychism is based on the belief that all physical particles possesses some mental characteristics. Mind is everywhere in matter. Emergence says that not all particles contain mental properties, but when joined together in a system, mental characteristics emerge, be it in the human brain or in a computer's central processing unit. More a mind over matter situation.

Every little piece of matter in the universe can be defined by its charge, either positive or negative or neutral. We all know that opposite charges attract and like charges repel. That determines the ability or willingness of particles to cling to each other. As particles clump together, they gain a distinctive shape. The nature of the shape renders parts of the lump very attractive to other lumps. The billions of transactions that occur inside our body's cells every day are regulated by these shapes.

Suppose that instead of using the word charge, we use the word mind. Each particle has a mind of its own, negative or positive or neutral. The nature of that little piece of the universal mind determines how it links to other particles. Some linkages are favored over others and recur constantly throughout nature in all life forms. In this way you can truthfully say that we do indeed have a mind of our own that is rooted in the subatomic particles that comprise all matter.

One more thing. Physics experiments prove conclusively that light can be either a wave or a particle. In other words, light can either be the ripples caused by dropping a pebble in the water or light can be the pebble. Maybe mind is the same thing, a form of energy that operates as a wave and a particle. It gets even more interesting when you contemplate entanglement, the idea that two particles can enter a state such that when one changes the other automatically changes too, no matter how far apart they might be, hence the notion of entanglement.

If none of this makes any sense to you, don't feel bad. It doesn't make any sense to me either, but somewhere in all this is, I think, the germ of an idea that I find intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I like the idea that all matter is imbued with some aspect of what we call mind. I like the idea that we are all entangled at some level. I especially like the idea of mind as wave and mind as particle, giving us an essential harmony with light.

Carl Jung is quoted as saying that "psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another", and that it was probable that "psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing." Could be he was on to something.

April 23, 2012

Book 'Em ... Someone ... Anyone?

Last night's 60 Minutes show led off with a report by Steve Kroft on the Lehman Brothers collapse. He began by reminding us of the enormity of the collapse and its impact on the world's economy: "It was the largest bankruptcy in history -- larger than General Motors, Washington Mutual, Enron, and Worldcom combined."

Kroft then interviewed Anton Valukas, a former United States attorney who was appointed by the bankruptcy court to figure out what happened. In the course of that interview, two points were made. First, Mr. Valukas strongly suggested that he had found enough evidence of wrongdoing--flimflammery involving $50 billion and something called Repo 105--to convince him that charges could and should be brought against senior Lehman Brothers officials, including the man in charge at the time, Dick Fuld.

Second, the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had agents working in offices in Lehman Brothers throughout this entire time, has so far done nothing to bring charges against anyone at Lehman Brothers. The Justice Department has been equally unable or unwilling to bring cases stemming from the Great Collapse.

Of the many things that have disappointed me about President Obama, this failure to go after the men who brought our economy to its knees is near the top of the list. We know who did this. We know how and why they did this. We know which laws were broken or bent and by whom. And yet none of the President's men seem willing to take this on.

Why? I'd like to know the answer to that. None of the possibilities are good. There is still time to rectify the situation, but it won't happen unless the President issues a clear mandate to his cabinet and sub-cabinet officials to get these cases into a court room. The American people are owed that much at least.

April 20, 2012

The X-Men Cometh

Scientists have found six molecules that mimic DNA's ability to store and copy genetic information and evolve. Why does this not seem like an unalloyed blessing? Jesus, we don't have enough problems already, we need to create alternative life forms possessing characteristics we know nothing about?

This synthetic DNA is called XNA. Sounds like something right out of the X-Files. And it gets better. They are not biodegradable, unlike regular DNA and RNA. Perfect. Let's create new, indestructible life forms and see what they can do. Gee, what could go wrong with that?

April 17, 2012

Emergence

The expression of a wholeness greater than its parts. Properties that exist only in the interaction of parts but not in the parts themselves. We see it clearer in completed projects such as ourselves rather than works in progress ... emerging emergence, you might say.

Grass growing in open fields for millions of years in a long unbroken genetic chain. Men building cities of concrete and asphalt on the fields of grass. Grass growing in all the cracks left behind in the streets and sidewalks and buildings by water expanding into ice and by wind blowing in dirt and seeds.

Grass throwing roots into the bowels of our civilization, inexorably crushing everything in its grip. Grass ... the eraser ... one of the planet's healing agents.

Emergence? Time will tell.

April 11, 2012

Deus Otiosus

Think of the world as a crime scene, loaded with forensics waiting to be examined for clues as to the nature of the perp, aka God. Much investigation began with applying the WYSIWIG principle to religion. What you see is what you get. To understand God, study his creation. When you do, you don't see a mechanical clock ticking off the hours towards midnight. Instead, you see an unfolding process, one that never quite repeats itself exactly.

This led me to replace my old notion of deus absconditus—a phrase created by Thomas Aquinas to describe a God who is unknowable—with the more directly apt phrase, deus otiosus, or a lazy God. Except lazy isn't quite right either. I think our God embodies the principle of "Work smarter, not harder." The creation we call the universe embodies several simple principles—self-organization, emergence, and chaos theory. (Simple in theory, that is, but complex in the results they achieve, which would be ... well, pretty much everything.)

Taken together, they point to a God more interested in watching a process unfold than in directing events towards a certain outcome. I'm working on a series of blog posts that will explore these ideas, ultimately to appear as a follow-up to A Misunderstood God, which really wasn't all that much about God. The new collection, A Lazy God, will stick more closely to the subject: God's creation and what we can infer about its creator.

So consider this my chap book of life. It will be a little rough here and there, but I'm hoping out of the chaos will emerge meaning that will give us something to think about.

April 8, 2012

Peak Oil Exposed

In my collection of essays on climate change, I talk about the three modern-day horsemen of the Apocalypse: climate change, over-population, and peak oil. Together, they work together to create the ultimate worse-case scenario: too many people dependent upon on a disappearing cheap-oil economy even as the planet they live on is undergoing profound changes to its atmosphere and oceans.

The video below tackles peak oil in a brief yet comprehensive manner. The point it makes it simple to grasp. There is only so much high-quality, easily-extractable oil available on a finite planet. Just about every country has reached a point where the amount of this oil they pump out is less and less with each passing year. We aren't running out of oil, but we are running out of cheap oil. That means we will paying more and more for less and less. So the choice is clear: we have no choice. We must begin phasing out our reliance on petroleum. Easier said than done in this political climate of denial and gridlock.

April 1, 2012

April Fools

In a rare moment of national unity, the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, along with the major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, together with the President of the United States, appeared in a joint press conference on the Rose Garden. The President read from a statement signed by all the leaders. The text of the statement dealt with the clear and present danger posed by climate change forced by man-made global warming.

Well, there is no point in going on. You know and I know this will never happen. It doesn't matter what the topic is. We could have Martians dropping out of the sky breathing death-ray flames of doom, and you would never see the above scene unfold. It sure as Hell isn't going to happen over global warming.

Global warming--the problem the politicians should have been dealing with for the last decade--has, up until now, lacked that in-your-face urgency that breeds the kind of desperation measures we will likely need to have any kind of hope of slowing down the rate in increase of carbon dioxide in our one and only atmosphere. Part of the problem has always been that climate is so blessed complex and subject to so many different forces and influences, that scientists have been reluctant to point to any specific weather events and say "Yup, that's global arming in action."

That may be changing, as the level of alarm being raised by scientists seems to have passed a tipping point.  The two predictions most commonly made--average global temperatures will increase along with the rate of extreme weather events--have been evidenced so strongly over such a long period of time that climate scientists are finally dispensing with the caveats and coming right out and saying it: Decades of ever-increasing emissions of carbon into the atmosphere has caused a profound change in the Earth's climate that can be directly linked to specific weather events.

Denying the reality of human-induced climate change is increasingly the exclusive province of the obdurately ignorant and the vested interests who want to preserve their status quo for as long as possible, no matter what the cost to the rest of us. That's one hell of an April Fool's joke on our children and grandchildren.