Sunday, December 26, 2010

WikiLeaks Revisited

by Richard Crews
Several months ago an organization named WikiLeaks began to make public secret documents about the U.S. conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. diplomatic communications from around the world. WikiLeaks provided hundreds of thousands of stolen documents to leading newspapers (The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel among others); WikiLeaks also published the documents on the Web.

The WikiLeaks documents were vast, and generally tedious and trivial. Tens of thousands of hours have now been spent by journalists, historians, and security annalists combing through the documents looking for nuggets of useful information. There is evidence that the U.S. Government has been secretive and deceptive in communicating to the American public and the world about its military efforts. In addition U.S. diplomats have been embarrassed by having caustic and critical remarks made public, remarks that they thought they were making in confidence.

The U.S. Government has arrested Bradley Manning who purportedly stole the documents, and arranged for the international arrest (on sexual assault charges in Sweden) of Julian Assange who founded and manages WikiLeaks. The Government also had international bank accounts closed and arranged for such major financial services as VISA, MasterCard, and PayPal to refuse to handle WikiLeaks donations.

In addition there has been a war in cyberspace between the U.S. Government trying to dismantle and destroy the WikiLeaks Website and "hackers" around the world who have tried to support and defend it.

Have there been any more dire consequences?

No one has been killed as a result of WikiLeaks. In fact the Pentagon reports that no one has had a changed assignment or been given extra protection because of the WikiLeaks revelations. The documents were carefully redacted before release to remove any personal identification that might bring about reprisals.

Furthermore, no one has been injured--except for Pfc. Bradley Manning who was arrested for stealing the documents and who, although he has had no trial and conviction nor even any charges filed against him, has been held in grueling solitary confinement for more than eight months and is showing signs of the mental and physical deterioration that is well known to result from such treatment.

Civil rights groups and some journalists and private activists have risen to challenge the governments' suppression of free speech. Also at issue is a democratic government's responsibility to be truthful with its citizens.

The Internet is proving to be an important evolving force for dissemination of information and for public involvement in governmental affairs. WikiLeaks is at least symbolic of this force, and perhaps, for now, the leading edge.

Friday, December 24, 2010


by Richard Crews
Perhaps you've heard of the DREAM Act. It's the one major Obama initiative that the Republicans continued to block during the recent not-so-lame duck session of Congress. The DREAM Act is pretty hard to argue with. It would have provided for citizenship to kids who have grown up in this country (although their parents are illegal immigrants) if they are law-abiding and go to college or join the military for a couple of years. Immigration reform has a lot of sticky issues--border guards, visa checks, hiring of illegal immigrants at sub-standard wages, immigration quotas, and paths to citizenship for university students and foreigners with special skills. Unfortunately the DREAM Act got kicked down the road with the rest of the thornier immigration issues.

But overall the recent lame-duck session of Congress was very productive. An economy-stimulating tax package made it through, as did the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the START Treaty limiting nuclear weapons with Russia. On the other hand, although a short continuing resolution to fund the government was passed, significant battles loom ahead on passing a full budget and raising the debt ceiling--it will be interesting to see what the new Republicans in the House and Senate actually do about these when they have their boots on the ground in Washington and have to govern rather than campaign. (The Republicans since the elections have already indulged enthusiastically in earmarks--that is, directing special funding toward home-town projects--despite campaigning against this practice.)

Some activities of government proceed apace. The Environmental Protection Agency has announced their determination to move forward with stronger regulations limiting pollution under the existing legislation since they did not succeed in getting a new, stronger legislative mandate. And the new Wall Street regulations continue to evolve in implementation, as does the new universal health-care program.

Hopefully the new Congress will deal with tax reform (that is, simplification of the absurdly complicated income tax, and installation of a "VAT," a value-added tax), and reinstitution of campaign finance reform (which the Supreme Court's ridiculous decision last year in "Citizens United" left in shambles). There may even be some attempt to revise the Senate's filibuster rules.

But immigration reform is a difficult issue. For one thing there are some 13 million illegal immigrants living and working in this country; they do not pay their fair share of taxes, but they also do not get fair protection of the law. Perhaps the new Congress will deal with some of the many and difficult immigration issues, or at least will DREAM on.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The American Dream

by Richard Crews
***Thanksgiving and mom's apple pie?

***The Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge?
......Yosemite and the Grand Canyon?

***Living in suburbia with an SUV in the garage and sending
......your 2.4 kids to college?

***Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

***Building a better mouse trap?
......Making more money than your father did?

***Norman Rockwell, Horatio Alger, Mark Twain,
......and Frederic Remington?

***The "Ugly American" and Cowboy Diplomacy?

Maybe all of these--and more--go into making up the image of the U.S.--the so called "American Dream."

The term itself, "the American dream," was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book, Epic of America. Since then it has come to capture much more than he originally intended. In retrospect, for the 19th century and before, it brings to mind adventurers, religious outcasts, and downtrodden people--first from Europe, then from around the world--emigrating to a country with boundless land and a classless society unfettered by tradition; a place where an individual could succeed through ability and ambition. During the 19th century its image was the wilderness frontier--the Wild West of Daniel Boone, the Gold Rush, and the Pony Express. As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the Robber Barons of big industry--steel, railroads; later, cars, tract housing, sky scrapers--came to dominate the image. And then the atom bomb, the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the space race, the Cold War. And most recently, world supremacy in money, trade, and political power, with world leadership in higher education, scientific and technical innovation, and democratic humanitarian morality; these have perhaps become the main characteristics of the American Dream.

There have always been problems with the American Dream--harsh realities not far behind the rosy, surface scenarios: slavery of blacks imported from Africa and the slaughter and forced migration of Native American populations; the extravagant spoiling of wild places and destruction of indigenous species; favoritism, corruption, and inefficiency in government. Recently, a culture of incarceration (the U.S. has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners) including the horrors of prolonged solitary confinement for tens of thousands; "wars" that are unwinnable by definition--that have no front lines, no uniformed armies, no Geneva-Convention ethics of engagement (such as the "wars" on drugs, terrorism, AIDS, and poverty); big-money politics with legislative gridlock; state and federal government financing that teeters on the edge of bankruptcy; abuse of human rights; and imbalanced wealth distribution (5% of the population own 95% of the nation's assets).

The "American Dream" represents a complex and changing image. The term has come to symbolize the best of the U.S. Usually we enjoy it proudly. But the reality has--and always has had--a darker, shameful side.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Value of Videogames

by Richard Crews
The brain has a built-in "delight of mastery" (DOM) response; in other words, there is pleasure from learning sensory-motor skills. This is obviously both a success advantage for an individual and an evolutionary advantage for a species.

Games are fun because of this DOM response. If we participate in a game, we advance certain skills; every game is designed to reward this. If we observe a game rather than play it ourselves (as with spectator sports), we identify with the performers and indulge in the satisfying fantasy, "I could do that."

[By the way, humor is also based on the DOM response; perhaps that will be the basis for another essay.]

The skills we learn (or enhance) playing games are either mental (as with the games of chess and go) or physical (as with such sports as football, baseball, tennis, or golf).

Over the past few decades a new variety of games, videogames, based on evolving computer technology has captured imaginations and markets throughout the industrialized world. Many parents restrict--or at least lament--the "wasted" hours their children spend shooting down alien spacecraft, destroying monsters, or finding ridiculous, hidden, magic items. It has only recently come to the fore that these games provide useful learning experiences.

First was the discovery that a few hours playing a videogame involving three-dimensional manipulation of visual objects leveled the playing field between boys and girls in spatial acuity. This had been the last bastion of statistical differences in IQ between the sexes. On all other dimensions of IQ testing--vocabulary, problem solving, numeracy, etc.--boys and girls seemed on a par. But perhaps because of the cultural inclination to have girls play with dolls and boys play with action toys, the statistical difference in spacial acuity appeared by age ten and persisted well into adolescence. However, with only a few hours of suitable videogame experience, this difference disappeared.

As to what else a child learns from playing videogames, there are several other major skills that stand out. The most obvious of these is visual-motor coordination. Videogames provide practice coordinating finger and hand responses (on a keyboard or with a joystick) to stimuli on a video screen. Another skill set, equally obvious in retrospect, is comfortable facility with electronic devises. This has led to the familiar perspective that if you have trouble working your home computer system, you should find a teenager to help you with it.

In addition an important cognitive ability that a child can enhance by playing certain videogames involves problem solving, particularly trying a variety of approaches and thinking "outside of the box." One popular genre of videogames rewards turning over imaginary rocks, looking behind invisible screens, and all manner of imaginative attempts to work toward a solution. The player is challenged again and again to think of new, varied, different, and unusual approaches.

The next mental-emotional skill that is enhanced by playing certain videogames is subtle but very important, namely, learning to respond calmly and logically in an emergency situation. Prior to the advent of videogames, no one had had the experience--much less hundreds or thousands of practice episodes--of being fractions of a second away from death and destruction. The post-videogame generation has the capacity to respond to an evolving automobile crash or house fire with cool, calm, calculating efficiency. (I postulate, by the way, that playing world-destruction-type videogames is protective against developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]; an epidemiological study will soon emerge demonstrating that soldiers who played this type of videogame in adolescence are less prone to developing PTSD.)

Also of importance for us oldsters is the role that videogames can play in delaying and counteracting the mental declines of old age. The phenomenon of "use it or lose it" is well known in the elderly. In many studies (and anecdotes), the senior citizen who continues to use particular verbal, numeracy, or other mental skills preserves those skills far beyond their age-mates. Properly prescribed videogames can be a fun way to preserve mental abilities in old age.

Supreme Court and Health Care

by Richard Crews
There are (or soon will be) four epic Supreme Court errors.

First: In 1857 in the infamous Dred Scott case the Supreme Court ruled that no one of African descent could be a citizen of the U.S.--once a slave, always a slave. Dred Scott entered the Court a free man and left a slave. This has echoed through history as the worst decision the U.S. Supreme Court ever made.

Second: In 2000 the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George Bush although Al Gore had won the popular vote by a million votes and probably would have won the electoral vote as well if the Florida recount had been allowed to proceed--the Supreme Court stopped it. The disastrous results of Bush's presidency are incontestable.

Third: In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in "Citizens United" that a corporation can spend unlimited, secret funds to influence an election. This disastrous reversal of campaign-finance laws moves us ever closer to having "the best government money can buy."

Fourth: In a few months the Supreme Court will probably rule that aspects of the health-care program enacted in 2010 are unconstitutional--specifically, the requirement that a citizen make a purchase (health insurance) from a private company violates the Constitution's allowable limits on trade governance.

This restriction would destroy the financial viability of the health-care program. Insurance companies can only afford to sell insurance to sick people if they have a large field of well people (that is, not-yet-sick people) to average out the costs. That is the essence of the insurance business. (As things stand now, about 1/3 of the premiums paid for health insurance go to pay for care for the uninsured; this cost would be cut in half if these people had insurance that let them go to scheduled clinics rather than use emergency services--and they would get better care.)

Happily this problem can be overcome by reawakening the "public option" and offering people a non-private source to buy insurance from. People can still opt to purchase from a private company, but a non-private source would be available.

Whether our politically driven and gridlocked federal government will have the wisdom and capacity to solve this problem is uncertain.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Obama-Republican Tax Compromise

by Richard Crews
It seems that President Obama has let the Republicans bully him into a second round of economic stimulus. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out in the next couple of years.

Two years ago when the U.S. and World economies headed into a severe recession, the U.S. Congress passed an enormous economic stimulus package. This involved borrowing several hundred billion dollars to create jobs by funding infrastructure, green energy development, education, etc. But it was not enough. The economy staggered to its feet but lagged and sagged; unemployment stalled at just under 10%.

Another round of government spending was needed, but had become politically unpopular and Obama did not have the political capital to push it through the legislature. However, tax cuts are the other way of putting money in the hands of consumers, and consumer spending is the backbone of economic growth. Granted, two onerous parts of the present package favor the very wealthy--a special tax break and a cap on the estate tax. These represent "trickle-down economics," a Reagan-era invention which has been discredited as inefficient. But after all, what do wealthy people do when they get money? They buy stocks and bonds. This provides business financing. And more significantly, the "compromise" involves substantial tax breaks for the middle class, a reduction in payroll taxes, and an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, all of which directly feed into consumer spending.

The timing and politics are also fascinating. One can expect the economy to stagger to its feet again and start up the hill over the next two years, just in time to fortify Democratic prospects for the 2012 presidential election. And the Republicans clearly are to blame for forcing this renewed explosion of the national debt.

One can almost hear Br're Rabbit's refrain: "Oh no, boss! Please don't throw me in dat briar patch!"

Monday, December 6, 2010

World Financial Woes

by Richard Crews
It is impossible to describe in simple terms the disastrous state of the world's finances, but I will try.

A couple of years ago several huge banks teetered on the brink of failure because they had loaned trillions of dollars to U.S. home-owners whose property values had declined, and who had therefore decided not to pay back to the banks the money they had borrowed to buy their homes. The U.S. government rescued these huge banks to the tune of several hundred billion dollars because they were so big and far-flung in their investments that their collapse would have destroyed worldwide economic systems.

Strong new financial regulations were enacted to prevent such a near-catastrophe from happening again. We do not know how effective these regulations will prove to be as they are put in place over the next few years. We do know, however, that the banking industry is lobbying hard (and expensively) behind the scenes to weaken them.

There are still hundreds of thousands of bad private mortgages overhanging the market. In addition there are several trillion dollars of bad commercial property loans (think--vacant office buildings) that the huge banks must somehow deal with over the next couple of years. So the banking crisis is far from over.

This past year another ominous player entered the field. The bonds that countries sell to investors in order to borrow money to run their governments turned out to be, in several cases, very weak. The countries simply did not have the money to pay back what they had borrowed. Greece--with Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy close behind--threatened national bankruptcy. The EU (Economic Union), largely on the strength of the German economy, came to the rescue with loans and guarantees, but also requiring austere programs of increased taxes and reduced government spending to assure future financial solvency. Several other huge countries--such as the U.S., U.K., and France--are not far behind on this bond-crisis path.

And another factor is soon to come into stark view: most U.S. states are severely in debt. California and New York, for example, have recently had very public, huge debt crises, exceeding in amount, in fact, any of the European bad-debt countries mentioned above. Imagine, for a moment, the rise in taxes that will be necessary throughout the U.S., and the closing of schools, fire stations, police stations, and other public buildings and services that will be necessary to avert state financial disasters.

The world's finances are very complicated--too complicated, in fact, and too cloaked in economic jargon to be fully understood. But the problems are ominous--they are severe and near at hand.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Significance of WikiLeaks

by Richard Crews
Over the past few weeks an organization named WikiLeaks has made public hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. government documents. It has done this by providing them to leading newspapers--The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and others--and by posting them to a public website (

The documents range from field memos of combat units to notes and emails regarding military and diplomatic meetings. They reveal many instances in which "news" put out by the U.S. government was untrue--for example, civilian deaths were under-reported, and misconduct by U.S. troops and friction with allies was unreported or even denied. The documents also contain brutally candid assessments by U.S. diplomats of foreign dignitaries.

The WikiLeaks documents have been an embarrassment to the U.S. government, especially to the State Department (responsible for international diplomacy) and the Department of Defense (responsible for running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). In addition to this embarrassment, numerous government officials have condemned the WikiLeaks process as detrimental to U.S. interests and dangerous for our friends and allies.

What is the true significance of the WikiLeaks from a diplomatic, military, technological, and historical perspective?

From the standpoint of our present international diplomatic relations, the effects are minimal. As one foreign diplomat said to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made dozens of international phone calls to warn about and apologize for the insults that were on the way, "Don't worry about it. You should see what we say about you." The world of international diplomacy is one of mock esteem and thinly disguised self-interest; all participants know the game.

As far as revealing military tactics and policies is concerned, there too the effects are minimal. A military unit's tactics and policies are known as soon as they are enacted. Revealing them in retrospect is not significant. As far as the claim that the leaks endanger the lives of troops or informants, the documents were thoroughly redacted (stripped of personal identifying information) before they were published. In fact, the Pentagon has stated that they do not know of a single instance in which someone was put in danger by the WikiLeaks.

From a technological standpoint, WikiLeaks presents a very interesting challenge to modern electronic communications security. The Web was originally designed to be open--freely and fully accessible to anyone. But as it has expanded and diversified, security in many areas has become a serious issue, for example, the security of personal information, bank account access, or shopping data. The WikiLeaks phenomenon adds to this challenging problem. There are many questions of privacy, range of use, encryption, and decorum yet to be answered.

Most of all--and though last, far from least--the historical significance of the WikiLeaks is, in fact, immense. Not only does it provide historians with a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes information about politics, diplomacy, and war in the 21st century, but it also potentially raises the bar regarding ethics and honesty in communications from the government. A free, democratic people are supposed to be fully and accurately informed of their government's activities. Another round of acute embarrassment like that caused by the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate Scandal--another round of evidence that the government does not, at times, communicate openly and honestly--can only be culturally healthy in the long run.

The WikiLeaks' publication of secret government documents was an important historical event. Julian Assange, the founder and principle administrator of WikiLeaks, is a journalist who has won several international awards for courageous integrity in journalism. He published the documents so that the U.S. government would be called to account for a pattern of widespread deception in its communications to the public. He hoped to further the cause of free speech and civil liberties. He knew that he might be arrested for his actions, and might well spend years--perhaps even the rest of his life--in prison. But he also felt that advancing the impetus toward responsible government was worth the risk and sacrifice.

That is the significance of WikiLeaks.
Update--Dec. 3, 2010

From this morning's RSN (Reader Supported News):

Daniel Ellsberg's Goodbye Letter to Amazon
Daniel Ellsberg, AntiWar.Blog
Daniel Ellsberg says goodbye to Amazon with conviction. Here's just the first paragraph: "I'm disgusted by Amazon's cowardice and servility in abruptly terminating today its hosting of the Wikileaks website, in the face of threats from Senator Joe Lieberman and other Congressional right-wingers. I want no further association with any company that encourages legislative and executive officials to aspire to China's control of information and deterrence of whistle-blowing."

WikiLeaks Fights to Stay Online
Charles Arthur and Josh Halliday, Guardian UK
"On Friday morning, WikiLeaks and the cache of secret diplomatic documents that have proved to be a scourge for governments around the world were only accessible through a string of digits known as a DNS address. The site later re-emerged with a Swiss domain,"

Later note: Within a few hours of the government's attempts to suppress the WikiLeaks publication online, the site had been picked up and was being mirrored by several hundred Websites around the world.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Having Children

by Richard Crews
How do we dare to bring children into the world knowing--as all of us must surely know by the time we reach young adulthood--that every human life has times of terrible pain and despair, of helplessness, hopelessness, and loneliness? By what sadistic or unconscious impulse do we grant ourselves the right to start another soul down that path of pain?

Several hundred years ago John Bunyan, about to be thrown back in prison for the heresy of refusing to renounce his commitment to certain Christian virtues, said, "The separation from my wife and my dear children has been to me as the tearing of my flesh from my bones--especially my poor blind child who, I must confess, lay dearer to me than all else I had besides. Thou must be hungry and cold, be beaten and suffer all manner of calamities in life though I cannot now endure that the wind should blow upon thee."

Abraham Verghese writes in Cutting for Stone: A Novel: "We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot."

The Buddha realized in his moment of enlightenment that every human life is inevitably a dialog with pain--the pain of being separated from things and people one loves; the pain of being attached to things and people one detests; the pain of illness and of decrepitude in old age.

I pose this question. It racks my soul. I have no answer.

Some would say there is a golden balance to be struck--that life can, should, and does have more love and joy than it has pain; that one puts all the good stuff on one pan of the balance and all the pain on the other and--voila!--the good wins out. This strikes me as a feeble and specious rationalization: the idea that there is or should be joy somewhere cannot be an excuse for causing pain.

Some would say we have no choice--that we are driven by instinct, fate, or culture. But it strikes me as despicable to plead helplessness.

Do you have thoughts (and feelings) about this question?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Math--The Ultimate Language

by Richard Crews
"We made a deal with the bank," reads the sign in a diner: "They don't sell chili and we don't cash checks." Likewise the human brain evolved to do a marvelous job finding ripe berries, getting us up a tree when wolves were near, and negotiating the stormy shoals of relationships necessary to pass the family jewels on to the next generation. But it was never called upon to fathom the paradoxes of quantum physics--to envision that the same particle can be at two places at the same time; that two particles, if born together, can communicate instantly although millions of miles apart; or that a sub-atomic entity does not decide whether it is a wave or a particle until it is observed--but its decision is then retroactive; or other quantum weirdnesses like those. Similarly, the human brain enables us run, jump, and hide marvelously well in three dimensions, but is incapable of imagining four or more dimensions--though the physical world, when closely studied, seems to need up to ten or eleven dimensions to come out right.

In addition to developing an operating system that will accommodate such useful apps as berry-hunting, wolf-avoiding, or mate-seducing when a culture sees fit to install them, the human brain has developed considerable flexibility with regard to communications programs. There are (still) over 7,000 distinctly different languages in the world with significantly different grammars, vocabularies, and world views, and any child can learn any one of them--or even several--flawlessly. To be sure, the human brain operating system loses some of its flexibility as it matures: the OS age 5.0.0 cannot install some of the apps it could at version 2.0.0. But it retains considerable plasticity. Even an adult (OS 20.0.0 and beyond) can substantially rewire parts of the brain to accommodate damage.

Moreover the brain, for all its foibles and limitations, has gradually--over the course of centuries--evolved one language that transcends cultural and wiring limitations: the language of mathematics. Mathematics very carefully says, "If A, then B," for example, "if there are bees on the Moon, then they fly in circles." It cautiously and studiously avoids any cultural bias and brain-hardware limitations. And it meticulously steers clear of enforcing--or even implying--any constraints on reality or our freedom to perceive it as we choose. Math does not say, "There are bees on the Moon"--everyone knows there are no bees on the Moon--but it does, through rigorous, logical processes, conclude that "If there were bees on the Moon," then "they would be incapable of flying in straight lines."

The languages of music, visual arts, dance, and poetry can be deeply emotionally moving, but they are fraught with cultural bias and brain-wiring limitations. The language of mathematics is not. The extent to which it is "beautiful" (and it is), the extent to which it inspires "awe" and "reverence" (and it does), is because it proceeds the way porcupines make love--very, very carefully.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

U.S.-China Convergence

by Richard Crews
The U.S. economy has recently taken a bad bruising. For a century and a half we believed more and more--sometimes secretly, sometimes ostentatiously--that democratic capitalism was the way the human race was meant to turn out. Clanism, feudalism, and monarchy fell by the wayside. Communism and fascism took their turns at the plate and struck out. Socialism evolved drastically to take a seat in the boardroom. But democratic capitalism built on its gains, learned from its setbacks, and inexorably spread to take over the world--economically, politically, and even culturally.

Democratic capitalism seemed like the ultimate marriage between the strengths and foibles of human nature. Its spiritual tradition was Judeo-Christian, a blend of puritanical hard work with soul-saving do-goodism. Its biological belief structure combined jungle-instinct, survival-of-the-fittest competitiveness with an inborn sense of altruism and community. As Western history was written and rewritten, monarchs yielded to presidents and to chairmen (and chairwomen) of the board, and military might yielded to economic heft. Democratic capitalism, it seemed, was being honed and polished in its role as the ultimate way of organizing human behavior.

Meanwhile China slept. It was mired in the weight of its vast human masses and the inertia of its traditions. Its spiritual roots were in the Tao (just let things be, go with the flow) and the wisdom of Confucius (the highest good, the Great Man, was a thoughtful and ethical leader). Its biological belief structure was empirical but deeply traditional. And the writing and rewriting of its history consisted of a succession of tyrants culminating during the twentieth century with the hegemony of communism, the ultimate tyrant.

But the U.S. and the appended world economy has recently taken a bad bruising. Laissez-faire deregulation, it seems, does not correctly--ultimately--counterbalance the short-sighted greed of entrepreneurs and economic empire builders. We wanted ever so much to believe it would. We tried hard to be like the three monkeys, covering our eyes and ears and mouth (and nose). Surely, surely the inventive financial excesses would right themselves--the false credit, the speculative "investment" slights of hand, the insider double-dealing would create their own demise; the inherent specific gravities and buoyancies of democratic capitalism were such that the ship would right itself.

But it didn't. Even the venerable Alan Greenspan, for 20 years America's top banker--the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, after a lifetime of laissez faire economic punditry said, essentially,"I was wrong."

Meanwhile China woke. It had struggled with its encumbrances and studied the West's successes. And in the wake of the West's economic disaster, China emerged from the mist coming on strong.

Now we have two world views. Democratic capitalism from the West trying to reign in its mad, runaway horses: trying to regulate renegade financiers, curb industrial pollution, and channel consumerism into sustainable (green) paths all the while sustaining (or in some cases rehabilitating) its humanitarian values--safety nets for the infirmities of illness and old age, universal health care and education, and respect for the dignity and individuality of each human being. And from the East, trying to dictate its way to mature capitalism: recognizing the need for a strong, consumer ("middle") class and perhaps, therefore, the inevitability of human rights and civil liberties.

As the West becomes more and more regulated and the East, more and more liberal, China and the U.S. are on convergent paths--and the world holds its breath.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Overriding Issue of Our Time

by Richard Crews
In ages past the overriding issues of the day were Ice Ages and Migrations, and the Spread of Civilization; later, Barbarians at the Gates; and in the 19th century, the Hegemony of the Sea which, in the 20th century gave way to the Hegemony of the Air.

The 20th century was also dominated by the Rise of Fascism, then Communism, and the Cold War, with the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation. Behind this was the Rise of the Military/Industrial Complex, with the Space Race leading into the Space Age.

Are we now in a era dominated by Islamic Fundamentalism, or Terrorism?

Some would say that the Explosion of Technology defines our age--especially Nanotechnology, Information Technology, and Artificial Biology. Or perhaps the remarkable advances in Materials Science that underlie those.

These have fueled an Era of Globalization with the coming rise of China and India to World Economic and Political Dominance. The U.S.--still far and away the world's leading economic, political, military, and cultural power--may seem to own Political Paralysis for now, but Cancerous Government encroaches on all fronts, East and West, driven by Income Disparity and Entitlement Burdens (related to Geriatrification of Populations and of Governments).

But more important perhaps is the Loss of the Western Soul: whereas once the U.S. and Europe were seen as the Beacon of Humanitarian Values and Progress throughout the world, they now Govern in Secrecy, Condone Torture, and preside over Worldwide Decline in Civil Rights including Mass Starvations and Genocides.

Perhaps our overriding concern should be the context: the Population Bomb, and growing Water and Food Shortages, and the Exhaustion of Natural Resources from fossil fuels to mineral deposits. Perhaps worldwide escalating Pollution of the Atmosphere, Land, and Seas, perhaps with Global Warming pushing the climate toward a tipping point.

But these are all brushstrokes in a single painting: Humanity has Overreached the Bounds of Balance of a Resilient Planet. Once the Earth was so large, its atmosphere and oceans and land masses so vast that a camp fire, even a forest fire, did not matter much; dumping wastes into the land, sea, and air were more than balanced--they were overcome by the enormity of the Mother Earth who nurtured and sustained us. But humanity and its effects, once a small blemish on the face of nature, have grown and spread into an enormous cancer which our planet can no longer hide, nor cleanse, nor cure.

Humanity has Overreached the Bounds of Balance of a Resilient Planet: that is the overriding issue of our time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What's Wrong with Psychotherapy?

by Richard Crews
Half a century ago when I was in my early years of learning to be a psychiatrist, I was in psychoanalysis for a couple of years. Four days a week--on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons--I would ride my motorcycle over to Dr. Ivan Heissler's office and lie on his couch for an hour and say any damn thing that popped into my head. That's called "free association." It's the essence of psychoanalysis--and psychoanalysis is the grand daddy of all Western psychotherapies (the "talking therapies").

I knew a lot about psychoanalysis. I knew that all I had to do was associate freely enough and long enough--with a qualified psychoanalyst listening in (a psychoanalyst is someone who has learned to be very, very patient and to listen quietly no matter what)--and clarifying insights about my tangled mental processes would emerge, and the warm hand of healing would descend on me and my life.

There are several things wrong with that picture. In fact, my experience in psychoanalysis had very little effect on me other than relieving me of hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars that I really couldn't afford.

For one thing, nobody ever told me (and it didn't occur to me at the time) that it would behoove me as I prattled on to talk about things that bothered me, or at least puzzled me in my life. This seems so painfully obvious in retrospect that I am embarrassed to report it now. But the good doctor Heissler, in line with his years of training, never asked me, "What do you want to work on today?" or "So what's been bothering you lately?" Similarly, no friend, relative, or colleague ever inquired, "Whacha workin' on in analysis these days?" And I never thought to ask myself either. Regardless of whether I was discouraged or elated--suicidal or homicidal--as far as I can recall that never entered the analytic sessions.

Secondly, as far as I knew insights would just emerge from the tangled web of my thoughts. I didn't know that you have to hunt them down, puzzle them out, glimpse them hiding in the dark corners protected from scrutiny by every conceivable mental machination and self-deception. And then once glimpsed, once cornered, once grasped, you have to hold onto them with every fiber of the adult, reasonable parts of your brain lest they slip quietly back into the woods and continue their insurgent terrorism on you life. So it isn't enough to realize, "yeah, I guess I overeat to please my mother--so what?" or "whenever I think of homosexuality, I'm still secretly afraid my father will punish me--that's sort of interesting."

Which brings us to the third problem--dissatisfaction with the status quo and motivation to do something about it. This has worked its way into the popular mythology about psychotherapy. You probably recall the old saw, "How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer" "Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change."

The fourth way that psychotherapy often breaks down is in providing some mechanism for learning the change. This might be devising some verbal formulations that ring out the old ideas and ring in the new--mottoes and slogans to reshape your life--"eating is not a form of entertainment" or "my father (dead that he is) doesn't care what I do sexually, and never did." Or it might be lifestyle changes--eating a defined diet on a regular schedule; calling the boss by his first name.

The fifth (and final) problem with psychotherapy is perhaps captured by the response of the New York City cop who was asked by a tourist, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" The cop answered, "Practice, practice, practice!" Most people don't realize that the hard-won insight and the cleverly devised counter-strategy are only one-tenth of the battle. It is only through careful, attentive, determined, arduous practice of the new, healthy (workable, comfortable) point of view or way of behaving--practice stretching over many weeks, even months or years--that it comes to replace, permanently and automatically, the neurotic patterns we learned as children.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Here Comes China

by Richard Crews
In the 19th century Britannia ruled the waves. After the decimation of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon met his Waterloo in 1815), the United Kingdom was, in the words of one Prussian general, "mistress of the sea.... Neither in this dominion nor in world trade has she now a single rival to fear."

But a hundred years later, the United Kingdom "was too weakened by [the First World] war to remain an effective hegemon" (Charles Kindleberger). Thereafter the 20th century saw the ascension of the United States to become a world superpower--until finally, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was the ONLY world superpower.

In 2003, the historian Niall Ferguson noted that "the power of the United States today closely resembles that of the United Kingdom roughly a century ago--[is it] hegemony or empire?"

But at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. finds itself weakened by two costly wars abroad and political gridlock at home.

Meanwhile China has been coming on strong having invented a new form of capitalism--non-democratic (dictatorial) capitalism. This is based on the historical experiences--the tribulations and successes--of the Western World but with one far-reaching caveat: it is run by the firm and uncompromising hand of the communist government. When, for example, the government decided to build the largest hydroelectric dam in the world (at Three Gorges), there was no delay--no considerations of "eminent domain"--because the project involved relocating 1.24 million people and inundating a world of cultural artifacts and ecological treasures. When, for another example, the government decided to take control of world production of rare earth minerals (which are essential for modern electronics and numerous engineering purposes), they pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into subsidizing Chinese mining and production facilities, thereby driving foreign sources into bankruptcy; the Chinese now have about 15% of the world's rare-earth ores but now control some 97% of the world's production. (Rebuilding rare-earth mining and production is a costly and time-consuming business--it takes hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade or more.)

From currency manipulation and trade protectionism to land speculation and pollution control, the Chinese Communist government has pried its way with a heavy hand into world economics--and therefore politics--and even, therefore, culture. (When the Chinese wanted to control the terrible atmospheric pollution in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, for example, they simply decreed that even- and odd-numbered licensed vehicles would be banned from the city streets on alternate days--never mind the terrible disruption of commercial and civil life this caused. Also, by the way--since they wanted to make a good impression on visiting foreigners and press--it was made illegal for fat people to wear horizontal stripes, or anyone to wear white socks with black shoes, on the streets of Beijing.)

How far can this dictatorial, managed capitalism go? Can it propel China to world economic and political domination? An interesting question. We shall see. A few weeks ago China passed Japan to become the second largest national economy (in terms of GDP) in the world.

And can it progress--including with massive expansion of the consumer-driven middle class, of TV and Internet populism, and of multi-cultural foreign participation--without significant expansion of civil rights? We Western liberals hope not.

Obama 2.0 (Oct. '10)

by Richard Crews
In my opinion Obama has been brilliant as a president. He faced--and faced up to--a global financial disaster comparable to the Great Depression and was both carefully contemplative and heroic in the measures he orchestrated to address it. He inherited a disastrous decline in U.S. education (from 1st to 13th in the industrialized world over the past 20 years) and miraculously leveraged minimal funds into astonishing progress through his "Race to the Top" program. He dug U.S. international diplomacy out of a "cowboy bully" image and raised it to a position of "esteemed negotiator." He brought the U.S. into line with universal health-care goals and practices that are common throughout the civilized world although he had to overcome massive cavalier political opportunism to do so. He reversed the anti-scientism of the previous administration. He faced natural disasters with efficiency, alacrity, and compassion. He put U.S. infrastructural decline, energy mismanagement, and environmental pollution firmly back on the national political agenda. And more.

Where did he go wrong? In the first place, how did he get so far behind the cultural curve on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? And why has he seemed so slow and marginally effective in dealing with (and bringing to a close) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? I think that running an army and dealing with hardened, top military brass was all too new to him. In his relationship with the military he let himself be cowed.

Second, in dealing with Congress he approached the task as a Constitutional scholar respectful of "checks and balances." He did not take a strong enough active and directive hand. For example, he let the Democrats in Congress roll every pet progressive project of the past 20 years into the "stimulus" package (worthwhile projects, but an unworkable dilution of the primary mission). In addition, he (somehow) let the Republicans escape from responsible participation in governing into obstructionism and vapid political rhetoric.

But most of all he acted as if the presidency is not first and foremost a political office. Apparently he thought that if he governed the world's most powerful nation and administered the world's largest and most complex bureaucracy with ethics and efficiency, that the politics would come tidily following along behind. This proved not so. Putting on a show--a media tour de force--to cajole and satiate the great, preoccupied, American masses is unfortunately the first and constant job of the president.

I think the storied leaders of ancient Rome--the Senators and Caesars--came to understand this. They found they could craft a stronger state or, on the other hand, could neglect and pillage it as long as they gave bread to the starving masses and threw great Super-Bowl extravaganzas of slaughtered gladiators, slaves, prisoners, and beasts in the Colosseum.

So hopefully Obama 2.0 will continue the brilliant, ethical leadership that has characterized his first two years in office, but in addition he will realize that he has to stay continuously on the campaign trail.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Another Wall-Street Bonanza

by Richard Crews
I guess you heard--Wall Street is straightening its green eye shade, adjusting its armbands, and licking its pencil (and its chops) to start handing out $145 billion in bonuses this year. This represent a new, all-time high, beating the previous record set in 2007 just before the bottom fell out of worldwide financial systems.

And why the hell not? Didn't they earn it?

No, they didn't--and that's problem three (be patient--"one" and "two" are coming). Banking (in the broadest sense) is a service industry. They don't grow or manufacture or even transport anything. They manipulate (ok, ostensibly they "guard") other people's money. You simply don't pay more for the cop on the corner or your home security system or even an insurance policy than you do for food, a safe and comfortable place to live, an education for your kids, or the tools and resources of your trade. It's crazy. It's like "protection" money. It's economics on its head.

But we do. Thanks to historical circumstances such as globalization, exploding information technology, and laissez-faire deregulation (with a healthy dose of ingenuity and normal human greed thrown in), we divert a major fraction of our national wealth to what should be oiling the economic system.

Why is this a problem? Because the extent to which one is paying protection money, one isn't building up ones business--building inventory, trimming prices, tailor fitting customer needs--or securing and enhancing ones lifestyle--living in a cleaner, more comfortable, more secure home; saving for the kids' education and for retirement; etc. Put in national terms, when the money-service industry dines on thousand-dollar wine and butterfly tongues, roads and bridges and power lines fall into decay, the atmosphere gets polluted from archaic vehicles and dirty power plants, scientific research and education founder, health-care and retirement go untended, etc.

So reason "three" is that the Wall-Street bonanza diverts money from healthful and productive uses.

Reason "two" is a little subtler but in fact more important. I won't go into it or argue it in detail, but cultural pay patterns that increase the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us weaken and undermine our economy--and hence our democracy and in fact our entire network of social systems. They decrease the buying power of the vast middle class and increase the rolls of the even-more-vast impoverished and disadvantaged beneath them. They bring our very beliefs and lifestyles into jeopardy.

But reason "one" is the real killer--one that is often overlooked and underrated. The Wall-Street bonanza drains the best minds as they graduate from college and graduate schools away from careers in science, education, engineering, health, and public service.

Every graduate these days makes a choice about where to apply their energy and talents and learning. And on one side of the balance is the lure to make millions--no, tens of millions--of dollars taking their math, law, science, language, or other skills to Wall Street.

That is the real tragedy of the Wall-Street Bonanza syndrome.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Passing Quietly

by Richard Crews
My point of consciousness seems significant to me--in fact, it seems like all there is. When I hear about things from other people or read about them in the newspaper, there is a different kind of reality associated with them--they seem more shadowy, more hypothetical.

Yesterday morning when I was walking in the woods, I stopped to rub some poison oak leaves on my arm. Bright, red-lacquered leaves they were--autumn's finest--which I have heard are particularly potent in bringing on the rash. I rubbed them hard against my arm. It's now been 36 hours and I've had no reaction to them.

I tell you this because the incident was a quiet, passing moment in my life. I did not plan it in advance; and I had no particular expectations for it. It could have been fraught with preliminary trepidation, or considerable lingering annoyance--but it was not. It will now fade from my memory as if it never happened.

Recently I had occasion to apologize to a young lady for a terrible, hurtful insult I leveled at her several years ago. As the anger of the moment subsided, guilt and sadness took its place. My apology was heart-felt--even laced with tears. But she said that she did not recall the incident.

My father died in 1963. Thirty years later I wrote a poem--

When I look back at the book my father wrote,
it is thinner than it was,
the pages fewer, the type fading,
the metaphors less vibrant year by year.

Soon there will be only a single page
with a single bleak and tired cliche
hardly visible among the wrinkled, acid-torn scraps.

Then he will be gone.

"Who?" people will ask if I chance to refer to him.

And I, when they ask--
I will not recall.

I wish I understood this stark dichotomy. My perceptions and recollections seem so vast--they fill up the world--they seem infinite. But they are also clearly zero.

I suspect that yours seem that way too.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Apocalypse Pending

by Richard Crews
On May 8, 1945, "Victory in Europe Day" (V-E Day), the World War II Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. I was seven years old. A remarkable change came over my family that day: I realized that my parents had been scared as long as I had known them and that they weren't scared any more.

But the end of World War II signaled the arrival of a new era of fear. Over the next few years it dawned on our consciousness that nuclear weapons--newly discovered, then enhanced and proliferated--could destroy our planet and our species (or any national segment thereof) and that the U.S.S.R. was aggressively bent on our destruction.

For the next 45 years until 1989, I (we) lived on the brink--second by second, minute by minute--of annihilation. Perhaps you remember this feeling clearly; perhaps you do not. It was very real. There was nothing hypothetical or emotionally detached about it. The Doomsday Clock hovered at a few minutes before midnight. A friend of mine in college (a straight-A student, a history major) seriously decided not to study for final exams because it seemed so likely--so clear--that the civilized world would not be around much longer.

Then in 1989 with a vast, worldwide, collective sigh of relief, the Berlin Wall came down. Those of us who had lived our entire lives under the second-by-second threat of nuclear annihilation--waiting for the blinding flash in the sky so that we could "duck and cover" before the shock wave hit so that we could prolong our lives a few minutes--a few hours--a few days at the most . . . we simply didn't know how to feel. We had never lived in a "safe" world and didn't know how to do it--we didn't know how to think, how to feel.

As we got used to it--as we began to learn to celebrate and to revel in it--it became clear that the "war" was not over. Terrorists with suitcase-size weapons of mass destruction (with "dirty" radioactive bombs or with chemical or biological agents powerful enough to kill millions) were all around us, driven by strange, violent ideologies. "Normal" business and finance had gotten so fast and massively global that a malevolent act--or a simple mistake strategically located--could bring the worldwide economy to its knees in a matter of minutes. Political paralysis and debt financing seemed poised and ready to destroy our civilized way of life. And behind it all "the wheels of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine"--pollution, global warming, the population bomb, famine, groundwater loss--or for those more sophisticated and "in the know," nanotechnology, biogenetics, the digital take-over....

Perhaps it has always been so. In millennia past, ice ages, droughts, predators, and the like have threatened our survival. (Some scientists believe, for example--on the basis of genetic studies--that at one point a million-or-so years ago the human race was nearly driven to extinction--reduced in numbers to a single small group--perhaps to a single breeding pair.)

In more recent centuries, plagues of disease or invading barbarian hoards (or even more local, adventurous potentates) have repeatedly hit the "reset" button and driven civilization as we (or "ours") knew it to the brink of destruction.

This essay--this stream of ruminations--may not have any "conclusion." Or for some it may be, "See, God has always looked after us and always will." For others, "If you put your head in the lion's mouth often enough, sooner or later you will lose it." (Even Steve Irwin did.) Or perhaps the amazing human intellect should merely cast all this as a fly speck in geologic or astronomic time.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Life Balance Sheet

by Richard Crews
It's time to look back at what I GOT and MISSED in life--at what has fallen my way, and what I wish had taken a different turn.

First, the good stuff. And first and foremost among the good stuff is the realization that I have been lucky--very, VERY lucky--again, and again, and again.

To start with, I got a remarkable set of genes. There was no particular "reason" for this in the long flow of the Universe; I certainly didn't "earn" or "deserve" the genetic foundation I got. As far as I know, the great DNA lottery just spun the wheel and I won. So I wound up, for example (for a HUGE example), going through life with an IQ that is high in the top percentile. Able to see and remember and figure things out that almost everybody misses.

In addition (in the "very lucky" department), I got a physical body that is very solid--very durable and reliable. Sure I had nephritis that almost killed me when I was 14 (and chronic kidney limitations since), and hepatitis that likewise almost did me in when I was 32 (and left me with lingering, background liver disease ever since), and heart disease that has put me on the brink--seconds away--from saying "sayonara" any instant in the past 35 years, and chronic lung disease, and GI disease, etc., etc. But basically this body I got to drive for the past 73 years has done one helluva stalwart, steady, reliable job.

Another bigee in the "lucky" department is being born into the socio-economic upper crust--high in the top percentile worldwide. I've never been "rich" by anybody's standards (except those of the bottom 95% of the world's population), but I was never hungry or cold or destitute, I always had a place to live and food to eat and clothes to wear--not to mention a car to drive and whatever were the latest toys and play-tools that were bubbling up through our amazing technological culture.

Maybe those are the big two in my lucky, lucky life--getting smart and sturdy-body genes, and an upper-crust socio-economic start--but they barely begin to tell the story. I have been so incredibly, astoundingly lucky again and again, minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day, year after year as I have stumbled along blindly and half-conscious in life--it almost makes me believe there is some Great Benevolent Force guiding my hand. When I think of the times . . . of careening down a coastline highway late one night at 80 miles per hour in the rain with no brakes; of walking into an Army prison shower room where an scared and angry young soldier with a loaded and cocked 45 was threatening to kill anybody who came near him saying to him, "Sit down--I just want to talk to you for a minute"; of having my bike whacked by a pickup truck trying to beat the light and the traffic going around a downtown corner and walking away without a scratch (a couple of weeks ago) . . . but those are just the "big" times. I'm talking about every second of every day. Often shielding me from my own "desires," expectations, and beliefs. I've come to expect that it doesn't really matter what I think or want or plan--what winds up happening will turn out to be best in the long run.

On the "bad" side, I wish I had learned several foreign languages fluently before I was 12. Lots of people do. It's no big "brain" thing--not at that age--it's a matter of opportunity. And it teaches a person to think outside the box for the rest of ones life. I wish I had learned to play the piano--or "keyboard"--when I was age 5 to 15, not to perform but everyone should be able to sit down at a keyboard and read through a piece of music. It's another language; not being able to do it facilly cuts you off from a whole other world of feeling and communication. I wish I had gotten more into gymnastics when I was in my teens; it provides a kid with a balanced and coordinated sense of dealing with ones body and the physical world for the rest of ones life.

Most of all I wish I'd learned to get along with people better. I've been socially obtuse--basically a loner--a hermit--all my life. It's been a good life. But it might have been more fun, more satisfying, if I'd been better able to share it more fully with some of the people who have passed by.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reasons for Penal Incarceration--Philosophical, Moral, and Sociological

by Richard Crews
It seems to me there are nine distinct reasons one can dissect from the historical and cultural web surrounding the practice of incarceration for a crime.

The first three of these revolve around the idea of PUNISHMENT, the most basic idea being that the individual is dealt a measure of pain (physical or emotional) for having violated society's rules. Perhaps this is easiest to separate conceptually from the other reasons if one considers a whipping or beating as punishment for a crime. Clearly this has no direct relationship with the crime itself, for example, with the goods stolen or the victim harmed.

When one moves to the second reason, retribution, the connection or relationship of the punishment with the crime begins to be asserted. This is conveyed in the concept (first embodied in the Code of Hammurabi, 1790 B.C., and later in the Old Testament of the Bible, the 1400s B.C.) of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This was originally a directive for mercy: that the criminal should not be mutilated or put to death for merely stealing something or causing an injury which was not fatal. The principle is highlighted in the operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan (1884 A.D.) when the Mikado sings, "My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime...."

The third reason under the general heading of punishment is restitution, that the individual owes recompense or repayment--that after serving ones prison term, one has "paid ones debt to society." Occasionally (mostly since the late 20th century) this incorporates a concept of victim's rights, that the victim should be paid back by the criminal commensurate with the victim's loss or the value of the crime.

There are three further reasons for penal incarceration that revolve around the idea of PROTECTING SOCIETY: First, to dissuade the individual by fear of punishment from committing further crimes. Second, to dissuade others from committing crimes by showing them a fearful example of punishment. And third, to protect society by segregating the criminal from society at large.

Finally--especially in modern, humanistic times--there are three reasons for penal incarceration that involve PROVIDING VALUE. First, to provide a convicted criminal with rehabilitative education and socialization skills so that the individual can become an integrated, non-criminal participant in society. Second, to provide society with, instead of a criminal, a productive, contributing member. And third, to enhance and extend a system of moral principles and patterns of conduct that provide for a safe and stable culture.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


by Richard Crews
I sat in my big, padded easy chair in the dark this evening listening to Haydn string quartets played by The Amadeus Quartet on the Stradivarius instruments owned by the Library of Congress--a sparkling performance--DDD and played on Bose speakers. I have had the recordings for a couple of decades and listened to them from time to time, but not for several years.

My inquiry this evening was to listen to see how Haydn plays with and paints and shifts the emotions he delivers. My conclusion: he doesn't; he was a hack; he worked at the court-composer trade and generated music for his master by the yard. He was no Bach; he was no Chopin.

While I listened, I thought about what sort of things should obsess me now in my later years? Growing old? Watching my mental and physical abilities fade? (Sometimes pretending that they are not?) Dying?

I found ease again in refreshing my realization that the human brain is a special-purpose computer. It was designed through the evolution of DNA to fear death (one of DNA's little ploys to perpetuate itself), to believe in God (a brain designed to solve problems seeks cause-and-effect patterns), and surely not to "go gentle into that good night" but rather to "rage, rage against the dying of the light" (DNA fights for every point no mater how long or how lost the match). Moreover the human brain was designed (through the evolution of DNA) to grok the world on our work-a-day level, not to visualize more than three dimensions, the quantum paradoxes, or the billion-light-year vastness of interstellar space.

I was pleased to think of God as "the world of mystery and perceptual distortion that surrounds us." And of death as Socrates saw it--without fear since, he said, he didn't know anything about death and wasn't daft enough to fear something he knew nothing about.

The Haydn came to an end. I realized I have not written you, my friends, lately. So I sat down and wrote this. I hope it finds you well--as brimming over with love and joy as it does me.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What Is Consciousness?

by Richard Crews
Consciousness is a problem-solving strategy, the result of a long, complex, and arduous evolution of a most curious chemical compound, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

DNA first happened on the scene about three and a half billion years ago. Exactly how this came about is not entirely clear. A few billion years after the Big Bang (which occurred 13.7 billion years ago), supernovae burst forth all over the Universe. They came from stars that had accumulated so much hydrogen--gradually accreting it under its own gravitational weight--that they had grown hot and pressured beyond nuclear synthesis of helium and other small elements. They had grown so fiery bright and massive that they exploded. In doing so they spewed forth into the cosmos an array of medium-small chemical elements they had synthesized in their pressure-cooker phase--elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen--elements necessary for life. This enriched cosmic dust raced outward from its exploding star. But gradually, because of its own gravity, it began to coagulate into gaseous clouds; these clouds were pulled into rings around other stars, and ultimately they coagulated into planets.

These planets--such as the early Earth--were hellish places, full of molten rock, volcanoes, and violent lightening storms. But gradually they cooled--more and more, here and there--and the rich chemical soup they had inherited from supernovae billions of years before was churned and frothed a million, million different ways. Out of this came--among many, many failed attempts--the first primitive building blocks of life: ultimately, DNA.

DNA has one unique and curious characteristic: given the right chemical froth, it makes more of itself. There is no other (known) chemical compound among the vast array of compounds the Universe plays with that has this characteristic. But DNA is a complex and delicate chemical structure and so, like any chemical (even ones with far simpler and hardier chemical bonds) it is subject to degradation. It can fall prey--and its unique characteristic, self-duplication, can be lost--due to heat, acids or other harsh chemicals, or even bombardment by electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays or by cosmic rays.

Imagine, then, that primitive forms of DNA brewing on Earth in its fertile stew were occasionally struck by cosmic rays coming from outer space. Usually nothing happened--the cosmic rays were too weak or not aimed precisely right; the chemical bonds of the DNA were strong enough to withstand them. Often, on the other hand, if the rays were strong enough to have an effect their effect was catastrophic--the DNA was destroyed. But on rare occasions the cosmic rays caused subtle damage; the DNA continued to be able to function, but in some altered way. It had been mutated.

Most of the mutations--rare as they were--were disruptive. They caused the DNA to function poorly and to die off. But ever more rarely--much rarer than rare--a mutation would occur that improved the DNA's functions, for example, one that enabled the DNA more easily to find and bind the chemical constituents it needed to perform its magic self-replication process.

Imagine now this salutary mutation process, though it occurred rarely, happening--over a billion years and more--millions and millions of times. Gradually the DNA became more and more complex, and better and better at reduplicating itself. Gradually it "learned" to join forces with other, slightly different DNA molecules for mutual advantage. Gradually it formed colonies, organisms, and then more and more complex organisms; gradually it became better and better at replicating itself--and at performing the other functions that supported that self-replication process: finding the necessary raw materials (food) including moving around and searching the environment; getting rid of useless byproducts (excretions); protecting itself from disruptive influences; and making more, faster, better copies of itself (procreation).

But how does this advanced, complex DNA organism make the myriad decisions necessary to survive and thrive? It does so by developing a way of evaluating the choices it must make and comparing their hypothetical outcomes. In other words, it does so by sorting through the incoming sensory data, comparing them with remembered experiences, imagining itself dealing with the data this way and that--and choosing the optimal behavior that is most likely to produce the desired outcome. In other words, it develops a network of neurons--a brain--and a way of imagining itself in a series of behavioral scenarios. In other words, it develops a reproducible and more or less consistent image of itself. In other words, it becomes conscious.

What Is Consciousness? Consciousness is a problem-solving strategy, the result of a long, complex, and arduous evolution of a most curious chemical compound, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Illegal Immigration

by Richard Crews
When I lived alone on a rural mountain top in central California in 2003, I hired a young man one day at the curb outside a Home Depot to help me move some lumber. We worked together for the better part of a morning, and talked of many things. He was a good worker and a congenial companion. He was also an illegal immigrant from Mexico; he'd been in this country for four years and had a wife and two very young children, at least one of whom had been born in this country and was therefore a U.S. citizen. He drove an unregistered and uninsured old pick-up truck. He told me he had been stopped by the California Highway Patrol six times--several of those for speeding--but had never gotten a ticket because each time the cop knew if he ticketed the young man, his immigration status would lead to his being deported.

There are estimated to be about 13 million illegal immigrants in this country. Relatively few--for example from Cuba--are here for asylum because of political oppression or--for example from African and Asian "hot spots"--to escape ethnic violence. Most have come--for example from Mexico--to escape poverty, hunger, disease, and criminal violence. They are here against all odds, against all their cultural traditions, to try to find a better life for themselves and their families.

They raise difficult questions for anyone who believes in human rights--who believes that the U.S., historically a nation of immigrants, can and should be an international beacon of freedom and opportunity.

Some say they do not compete fairly for U.S. jobs. But arguments that they are a drag on the U.S. economy are misinformed. A recent study out of UCLA, for example, of the three million illegal immigrants granted amnesty during the Reagan years found a resulting overall support of minimum wage, union strength, and national productivity.

Arguments that they can be kept out by a bigger fence or wall--a so-called "non-porous" national border--are ultimately unrealistic. Every country has a right to secure its borders, but even the Berlin Wall saw an average of 23 people killed each month trying to escape from Communist East Berlin, and hundreds did escape.

The ultimate solution, of course, would be to raise the standard of living--of health care, education, public safety, political freedom, and economic opportunity--in the would-be immigrants' home countries. Many such efforts, including NAFTA, have been tried--many are under way. But they are Sisyphean tasks, heaving against the relentless gravity of history.

In the U.S. we are engaged in an intense national dialog about illegal immigration, often more the subject of political heat than of humane or informed light. For example, the "Daily Beast" (an informational electronic newsletter) reported this morning--

"AZ Needs U.S. Help for Immigration Law

"Arizona’s tough new immigration law goes into effect Thursday, but will the state have the muscle to enforce it? Maybe not, says The Wall Street Journal: While state and local officials can arrest and imprison illegal immigrants, only federal officials have the power to deport them. State and local police are required to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check the immigration status of detainees; ICE will then let them know if the suspect is deportable. ICE has insisted that it will continue to focus on recent crossings, felony re-entries, and serious criminals. However, in the past, the federal government hasn’t withheld its cooperation."

The effects vary county by county.

"The United States has deported 115,841 illegal immigrants under the federal-local partnership since 2007, and—this is really shocking—nearly a quarter of those, 26,146, have come from a single Arizona county: Maricopa County, home to the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rafal Blechacz Plays Chopin

by Richard Crews
I happened to hear a remarkable pianist play Chopin last night. He is technically perfect--but then so are hundreds of young pianists. What stopped me in my tracks and brought tears to my eyes is his remarkable, profound, subtle, emotional expression. It is truly Chopin as Chopin should be played: all the joy, all the despair of a tortured but triumphant life are there.
Chopin, in my estimation, is one of the greatest composers of all time, ranking with Bach and Mozart--significantly above Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, et al. There seems to be a bit of a conspiracy to overlook him in academic music circles mainly because his work is 95% piano and because he doesn't fit neatly into the evolution of Western classical harmony and tonality, but also because his music is very difficult to play and almost impossible to play "fully." He was barely mentioned in my undergraduate music (theory and composition) courses.
When I finally discovered Chopin a couple of decades ago, I got CDs of a dozen pianists renowned for their performances of Chopin--Horowitz, Rubenstein, Ashkenazy, and others. I only found two that were not disappointing--that fulfilled the essence of the music: Peter Katin and Zolton Kocsis.
Last night I discovered another--perhaps the king of the lot--Rafal Blechacz. When I looked him up on WikiPedia this evening, I found the following.
Rafał Blechacz born June 30 1985 Nakło n. Notecią, Poland) is a Polish classical pianist.
On October 21, 2005, he became the sole recipient of all five first prizes at the 15th International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition* in Warsaw, taking First Prize and the polonaise, mazurka, sonata, and concerto prizes. According to ABC News, one of the judges, Professor Piotr Paleczny, said that Blechacz "so outclassed the remaining finalists that no second prize could actually be awarded." Another judge, the distinguished Irish pianist John O'Conor, said "He is one of the greatest artists I have had a chance to hear in my entire life," according to PBS.
* Note: This competition is held every five years. There are initially 200 successful applicants chosen; these are whittled down to six finalists.
If you never "got" Chopin--if you never thought you liked his music--go out of your way to hear this young man. (If you have already discovered the glory of Chopin, here is a chance to double down.)
Coda: there are several performances by Rafal Blechacz of Frederic Chopin's music on YouTube, specifically at--


Perhaps I should also mention--for clarification of the fact that the piano competition was held in Warsaw although Chopin is French by reputation--that he was born in Poland (and is considered a great Polish national treasure) but transplanted by circumstance to Paris (the massive Russian-forced Polish emigration) at age 20; he died at 36.


by Richard Crews
The publication of millions of classified military and diplomatic documents from around the world on WikiLeaks is big, BIG news.

Enormous efforts are being made to weed out specific ID that would lead to people getting killed--and these efforts will be inadequate to some extent--and to phase and batch the output so it is not completely overwhelming.

But this is the most politically and sociologically important event in years--greater than the "Rodney King Patrols" when a lot of people started carrying loaded video cameras to try to bust police acts of brutality, and comparable to the worldwide smart-phone use at civil rights and political demonstrations.

Governments of the people, by the people, and for the people around the world claim to value accountability and transparency. Now they get a chance to prove it--to get their noses rubbed in their own excrement.

Friday, July 16, 2010

U. S. Incarceration

by Richard Crews
The United States has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. The U.S. incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any other country in the world--including Russia, China, and Cuba. It incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other democracy or dictatorship; more than any Asian, African, or European nation; more than any long-standing government or new, emerging one.

Compared with other leading, industrialized, first-world countries such as the U.K., Germany, France, Canada, or Japan, the U.S. incarcerates a ten-times higher proportion of its citizens than any of those countries.

Last year the U.S. passed an alarming milestone: there are now more than three million U.S. citizens under restraint within the multi-teered (federal, state, and local) penal systems. This amounts to roughly one in every one hundred of our fellow citizens.

Why? There are essentially two reasons: First--sentences in the U.S. tend to be much longer than those for comparable crimes in other first-world countries. A crime such as bank robbery which typically draws a sentence of 6 to 12 months in many European countries may call for a sentence of 15 to 20 years in the U.S. Second--the vast majority of incarcerated U.S. citizens are being held for so-called "non-violent" or "victimless" crimes. In fact, most are for drug-related offenses.

The U.S. once tried a terrible experiment in prohibition. From 1920 to 1933 the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the U.S. Despite massive enforcement efforts, beer, wine, and whiskey continued to be readily available throughout the U.S.; organized crime flourished on the profits. The current situation with regard to illegal drugs is comparable to this prohibition experience.

Today, there are several places in the world where drugs are legal--the personal use and transport of small quantities of narcotics is not against the law. Contrary to popular predictions, this has not led to tourist-drug havens nor to significant public or personal health problems. But a politicized culture of fear has led to harsh anti-drug legislation and sentencing practices throughout the U.S.

This has led to an overcrowding of the prison systems. In conjunction with this there is little rehabilitation--neither education nor resocialization efforts--within the systems. Moreover, even after release, an ex-felon often has trouble finding a job or a place to live since most employers will not hire an ex-felon and many landlords will not rent to someone with a prison record. In many places there are even laws restricting employment, housing, or other activities of ex-felons--near schools, for example. So in addition to having been isolated and kept out of touch with cultural and technology changes--perhaps for many years--ex-felons are stigmatized and restricted in attempts to rejoin society.

What needs to be done? Three things.

* First, laws need to be changed so that the prohibition against personal transport and use of drugs is repealed. In addition, harsh sentencing practices for illegal manufacturers and dealers should be revised.

* Second, there should be extensive education, job training, and other rehabilitation and socialization programs for anyone in jail; the economics (tax and program funding aspects) of this turn out to be surprisingly favorable.

* Third, there should be extensive, positive job, housing, and other programs to help ex-felons rejoin society after discharge. In addition to programs in road and parkland maintenance, there are many activities within recycling, "remanufacture" (of damaged and recycled items), organic and community gardens, and other fields which could provide valuable services to the community at large, could offer ex-felons gainful employment (at menial up through administrative and high-level jobs), and would not compete unreasonably with commercial businesses.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Beauty in Scientific Theories

by Richard Crews
I want to start by acknowledging that "beauty" is a hard word--a hard concept--to define. Surely there is a subjective aspect. (I am reminded of my dear friend Lorenzo in Texas--one of the brightest and most smooth-sailing-through-a-complex-life sociopaths I have ever met--who had a particular affinity for very fat women; I find them ugly and unhealthy looking. He finally married one who was perhaps 5 foot 2 and 300 pounds. He even had a couple of kids with her--both of whom were born addicted to cocaine, and both of whom were taken away from an obviously unhealthy home by Social Services by the time they were a couple of months old. But I digress.)

In conjunction with its subjectivity, the "Aunt Tilly Principle" certainly applies: "beauty" (like my Aunt Tilly) is hard to "define" but easy to recognize.

Not only does "beauty" mean different things to different people, but there are even severe variations between the lexicons of standardized usages. In this regard, for example, one might be surprised to find the word "beauty" associated with "science" and suspect that in science "beauty" does not mean the same thing it means in architecture, poetry, or music.

Given those caveats, in the words of the great historian Will Durant who said (in the introduction to The Lessons of History that only a fool would attempt to summarize the eleven huge volumes of his [and his wife Ariel's] The Story of Civilization in 100 pages), "I proceed."

"Beauty" is defined as the quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality. Beauty is a quality or feature that is most effective, gratifying, or telling.

Another word that sometimes subs for "beauty" in trying to capture the illusive aesthetics of scientific theory is "elegance." "Elegance" is defined as refinement, grace, and beauty in movement, appearance, or manners; tasteful opulence in form, decoration, or presentation.

Now to the question, where does beauty come into scientific theory? Let me begin with a startling quotation by Paul Dirac, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who was central to the development of quantum mechanics. "I might tell you the story I heard from Schrodinger of how, when he first got the idea for this equation [the famous and seminal Schrodinger Wave Equation], he immediately applied it to the behavior of the electron in the hydrogen atom, and then he got results that did not agree with experiment.... That, of course, was a great disappointment to Schrodinger, and it caused him to abandon the work for some months.... I think there is a moral to this story, namely that it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment."

Karl Popper, philosopher of science, defined four criteria for a theory to be scientifically "strong": it must be parsimonious, falsifiable, and have explanatory and predictive utility. The last three of these are not hard to understand. "Explanatory utility": the theory must be useful in explaining past observations. "Predictive utility": it must be useful in predicting the results of experiments or observations yet to be made. "Falsifiable": there must be ways of testing it and, if it is wrong, proving that it is wrong. (This is the main reason that the "theories" of creationism or "intelligent design" are not scientific: they can never be proved wrong--whatever observations appear, they are just there because God did it that way. And as you can readily see, creationism and ID also have no predictive utility.)

But the fourth criterion, parsimoniousness, is a puzzler. Essentially it says that for a theory to be scientifically strong, it should be short and sweet. The quintessential example of this is Einstein's equation relating mass and energy: E equals M C-squared (the energy bound up in a physical object is equal to its mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light).

It is an interesting reflection on the functioning of the human mind--its struggles and frustrations, its satisfactions and triumphs--that the more complicated and convoluted a theory is--the more it lacks elegance and beauty--the harder it is for it to hold its head up in the halls of science.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Brain: A Special-Purpose Computer

by Richard Crews
You would not expect the computer at an ATM--quick and versatile as it is--to fly a jet; nor a hospital lab analyzer to scan sales at a super market. They are special-purpose computers, able at what they do but woefully lacking at the versatility to step out of their assigned tasks.

Similarly, the human brain evolved under certain circumstances to handle certain problems--to seek and assess food, to watch for and avoid predators, to court and procreate, and to raise children, and so forth. Is it any wonder that when we ask it to step outside of those circumstances, it balks and falters and cannot do the job?

For example, the brain evolved for problems in a "mid-size" range--to assess the progress of predator or prey running through the woods; to throw, catch, or dodge a projectile under the influence of gravity and momentum; to run or climb and avoid falling. When we tell it that at the astronomical-size range, two photons may be fired in opposite directions, each at the speed of light, yet they are still traveling at the speed of light with respect to one another, the mind stalls. Similarly when we try to imagine a two dimensional surface, somehow we can only see it as if it were suspended in a three-dimensional world. Or four spacial dimensions (time doesn't count in this exercise)--the mind balks--much less five, six, or more dimensions. And though sound and patterns of light come easily to our ways of thinking, we have no framework for envisioning the thousands and thousands of radio waves with their complicated and separable messages that we know are coursing through our bodies at every second of the day and night.

At the sub-microscopic level, particles leap across impenetrable barriers by ceasing to exist on one side and taking up their existence on the other. Some processes do not occur until they are observed; others cannot occur while they are observed. Such things simply do not happen at the perceptual level our brains developed to handle; we simply cannot grok them.

Finally, consider problems of causation. It is very useful in daily life to project effects--to imagine jumping from a high place or trying to lift a tree and to imagine the results without actually "doing" it. And to infer causes--there is a noise; there must be something there that caused it. My hand hurts and is bleeding--something must have caused that. So it is natural for us to try to find reasons and causes for any mysterious things we sense or imagine around us--for the origin and evolution of life, for example, or the origin of the universe.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Life Keeps Popping Up Here and There

by Richard Crews
When I went to high school (in the middle of the last century), I learned that all life--and I mean ALL--depended on energy from the Sun. Through the miracle of chlorophyll, sunlight charged up delicate organic chemicals which could then be used to fuel growth, tissue repair, reproduction and the seven-or-so key abilities that all living things can do, and no non-living things can do. Basically if you weren't green (with chlorophyll), you ate somebody who was green--or maybe you ate somebody who ate somebody who was green. Somewhere back in your food-chain base you got energy for life from the Sun.

Then in 1977 scientists discovered deep sea vents--essentially under-water volcanoes that spewed out hot chemicals. And these vents had ecosystems around them that never knew light from the Sun. Complicated ecosystems with networks of plants and animals. Moreover, as explorations proliferated, it turned out these ecosystems were enormous--a total mass of living beings worldwide that far exceeded the mass of chlorophyll-dependent life: the forests and fields and animals and bugs we had thought was all there was to life.

Other ecosystems were discovered (1985) deep in the Gulf of Mexico that get their energy from oil seeping up through the seafloor bed. (Granted, the energy in this oil came originally from chlorophyll-trapped sunlight, but that was so many millions of years ago that only a purist would quibble with the novelty of it.) Other explorations (2006) turned up organisms tucked away deep in a South African mine, organisms that use radioactive decay of uranium and thorium as their only source of energy.

Life, it seems, will spring up around whatever energy source is available.

What about the dilemma that only life can make life (at least until a few months ago when a computer with a few bottles of chemicals finally managed the task). How on Earth can the life-making-life process ever have gotten started? Not too tough a question after all, since it turns out that inter-stellar space is rife with complex organic chemicals--they are raining down on the planet all the time.

Along the way scientists also found the most adventurous "extremophiles," organisms that thrive in boiling hot battery acid; or in water so salty it would float a penny (well, not really, but I was looking for an impressive metaphor here); in microscopic cracks in rocks miles beneath the surface of the Earth; and in all manner of hostile environments.

The moral of this story is that life keeps popping up everywhere. Will it be found in the oceans of Jupiter's satellite Europa? Probably. In the rocky crystals on Mars? Probably. On some of the hundreds of exoplanets now being studied that are circling stars outside of our solar system? Probably.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mineral Wealth in Afghanistan

by Richard Crews
Afghanistan is a poor and primitive country. Although it has about one-fifteenth the land area of the U.S. and one-tenth the population, the GDP (the overall economic output) is less than one-one thousandth that of the U.S. Much of the social and political structure is reminiscent of Europe during the Middle Ages with feudal warlords controlling small territories. The economic relationship with the industrialized world is largely based on three activities: opium production, narcotics trafficking, and foreign aid. There is little modern infrastructure--very few roads, rails, or communications resources, and little in the way of education, sanitation, health care, or emergency services.

Some international attempts to eradicate opium poppies have failed because there is, frankly, no substitute cash crop. Although there have been some attempts to introduce farming of various fruits and commercial flowers, without their poppy crops feeding into the base of international narcotics trafficking, small farmers barely grow enough vegetables and farm animals to sustain themselves.

The recent revelation that there is enormous mineral wealth underlying scattered areas of Afghanistan changes this picture. There are huge undeveloped veins of iron ore, copper, cobalt, gold, and several other metals of industrial importance. Afghanistan has the potential to become a major international mining resource. It can attract foreign development capital by the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars. (China has already contracted for tens of millions of dollars of copper ore.)

The crucial question is whether a central Afghan government (with international help) can administrate the development of these resources without bleeding off so much of the wealth through corruption and mismanagement that the country's infrastructure and the health, wealth, and happiness of the Afghan people gain rather little.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


by Richard Crews
Language is humanity's highest intellectual achievement.

Although there are about 7,000 different languages in the world, they have a number of things in common.

Most use the vocal cords and the anatomical structures of the pharynx and mouth to make sounds.
Except, for example, the whistled languages (of which there are about 200) such as Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands; Kuşköy in Turkey; Aas in the French Pyrenees; Mazatec and Chinantec of Oaxaca, Mexico; Pirahã in South America; and Chepang of Nepal.
And except, of course, for sign language of the deaf which uses no sounds at all.

Most have four basic classes of words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Except that several languages lack an open adverb class. Others, such as Lao, spoken in Laos, have no adjectives at all. A few languages, such as Straits Salish, spoken by indigenous people from north-western regions of North America, do not even have distinct nouns or verbs. Instead they have a single class of words to encompass events, entities, and qualities.

Very importantly, to reflect complex human thought processes most languages allow recursion--"John's friend" can be extended to "John's friend's cat" and then, in turn, to "John's friend's cat's paw," etc. or "John thinks that Mary thinks that..." etc.
Except, for example, that Amazonian Pirahã does not have this recursive quality.

Most languages have plural markers, that is, ways of handling a singular word to indicate that there are more than one of the thing or action referenced.
Except, for example, that the Kiowa people of North America use a plural marker that means "of unexpected number." Attached to "leg," the marker means "one or more than two"; attached to "stone," it means "just two."

Most languages have ideophones by which diverse feelings about an event are closely attached to the event word. Sometimes the feelings attached by way of ideophones can be complex and subtle, for example, the word "rawa-dawa" from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent means "the sensation of suddenly realizing you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it."
An interesting example of a language that lacks ideophones is English.

But varied as they may be, languages are at least uniquely human. Only Homo sapiens have developed and use languages.
Except that many species--from bees and bats to porpoises and elephants--are known to have complex socializing, warning, hunting, and foraging communications.
And several species--from parrots to great apes--have learned to correctly interpret and use hundreds of words from human languages. Several gorillas, with arduous training and given special computer keyboard equipment (since they lack the anatomical sound-making mechanisms) have learned hundreds of words, and learned to combine them in grammatical constructions that go beyond their learning experiences. One gorilla mother even taught her son this human-generated sign language.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Much Ado about Practically Nothing

by Richard Crews
When the Universe was born in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, all the matter that exists in the Universe today was created in the twinkling of an eye (less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second).

Actually a good deal more than exists today was created, since matter and anti-matter were created in almost equal amounts, and they went to work annihilating one another. Luckily (I suppose) there was a slight excess of matter--about 1%--and that's what we see in the stars and Earth and everything else around us.

Well, not quite. It seems that most of the matter and energy in the Universe is "dark"--it can't be seen or otherwise observed by our usual senses and scientific instruments. In fact, only about 4.6% of the mass and energy in the Universe is observable (is not "dark energy" or "dark matter").

That doesn't seem to leave very much, does it? Only about 4.6% of the 1% that remained after matter and anti-matter were done with each other.

But that still doesn't take account of the calculation that most of the mass/energy left over from the Big Bang after the big matter and anti-matter shoot-out has been lost, during the ensuing 13.7 billion years, down black holes. Over 99.999% of the observable mass and energy in the Universe has collapsed into black holes.

Yup. Everything we feel around us and see in the night sky represents only about a bucketfull of the ocean of Universe that was originally created.