“Strawberry Moon”

I’m a little late getting this up, but these two diagrams illustrate what you see at latitude 40 N on the summer solstice, when there is a full moon (so-called “strawberry moon – borrowed from folklore). This doesn’t occur often, but an almost full moon at the solstice is quite common. So there is nothing about the appearance of a strawberry moon that is special. It is only that it is full on the same day as the solstice.

This means the moon is in “opposition” to the sun, that is, in the opposite direction from the earth. Since the sun is at the summer solstice (in the constellation Taurus, the bull), the moon must be at the winter solstice (in the constellation Sagittarius, the archer).

Well, almost at the winter solstice. You will notice in the second diagram that the sun is 73.5 degrees above the horizon, while the moon is +/- 26.5 degrees above the horizon. Why the hedging about the moon’s angle? Well, the moon doesn’t orbit the earth exactly in the plane of the ecliptic. If it did, there would be a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse every month. The orbit is tilted at about 5 degrees, and I don’t happen to know how much it was off the plane of the ecliptic on June 20, 2016, hence the hedging

Diagram showing direction of sunset and moonrise
Diagram showing direction of sunset and moonrise


Diagram showing sun at noon and moon at midnight
Diagram showing sun at noon and moon at midnight

Postscript: the orbit of the moon lies in a plane that is tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic by a little more than 5 degrees. So there is a line where the two plane intersect, and if you extend this line, it points to a specific point in the sky, somewhere in the zodiac. This point slowly moves  through the constellations of the zodiac, making a complete trip every 18.6 years.

The reason for this is that the plane of the moon’s orbit precesses, just like the plane of the earth’s orbit. The moon is much smaller than the earth, so it precesses every 18.6 years, while the earth’s orbital plane precesses every 25,000 years, known as the precession of the equinoxes. This is why the north celestial pole used to be near Vega, but is now near Polaris.

I read that this 18.6 year cycle was important to several prehistoric cultures. We know this by analyzing various astronomical constructions they made. Just like solstice means “sun standstill”, the corresponding event for the moon is called the “lunar standstill.”

We pay dearly for living indoors in cities, as we have few occasions for observing the night sky. Prehistoric peoples knew a lot of astronomy!

The Art of the Body

The oldest art medium may be the human body. The most familiar body art is clothing, including armor, jewelry, accessories and headdresses. Here I want to discuss using the body itself as a medium instead of an armature on which to hang dress and adornment, although there is really no sharp boundary between direct manipulation of the body and adornment hung on the body.

Modern forms in this genre are make-up, hair dyeing and styling, and perfume, but the practice likely predates the evolution of modern humans. Evidence that cannot endure the millennia has vanished, but the mineral red ochre has been found in prehistoric sites dating back 200,000 to 250,000 years ago (http://www.pnas.org/content/109/6/1889.full.) Although no one knows what it was used for, it was not a local material at the sites, and since nearly every pre-modern society we know of uses it for body painting, it is not unreasonable to assume it was so used by ancient hominins (including Neanderthals).

Body painting was widely used by pre-modern peoples as beautification and as a part of rituals (the past tense reflects the inevitable modernization of dress and decoration after a people are assimilated into modern global civilization). This practice persists, sometimes in surprising ways not associated with the theater, as we will see.

Mutilation is another branch of body art. Common contemporary examples include pierced ears for earrings and tattooing. Pre-modern examples include the insertion of large disks into the skin of lips and ears, the deformation of a girls’ clavicle bones by a stack of decorative hoops exaggerating the length of the neck, the thankfully abolished practice of Chinese “lily feet”, scarification, insertion of bones through the skin and the like. Contemporary self-mutilation includes weights hanging from hooks through penises or buried in the skin, evidently to act out masochistic urges. Many contemporaries (few from my generation) sport rings through the nose, belly, or other body parts.

Child's face painting

Children love to have their faces painted, but other forms of body painting thrive in contemporary society. In my search for information on pre-modern examples, I innocently Googled “body painting” and was startled to find endless images of elaborately painted, typically attractive and entirely nude women. This has apparently been an organized practice at least since the 1960’s, an outgrowth of our newly (and incompletely) liberated attitudes toward nakedness and sex. Men are also painted, but it is hard to integrate their exposed genitals into a convincing image, while a shaved pubis can be readily disguised, at least from a respectful distance.

The countess-model Veruschka turned body painting into an art form, as can be seen on her website http://veruschka.net. There she is “painted into” elaborate backgrounds until she is virtually invisible, enticing the viewers to play a sort of “Where’s Waldo” game. Many other artists have picked up this theme. In my post “A New Way to Think About Art” I show a photo of Veruschka’s head disguised as a rock.

Another iconic example is the follow-up cover of Vanity Fair magazine on the anniversary of Demi Moore’s famous 1991 nude photo while 7 months pregnant. In the follow-up, the newly trim Demi is painted as if wearing a three-piece suit. And Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue now features models with painted-on bathing suits. Perhaps the fad will spread, but paint doesn’t last as long as bathing suits, however abbreviated. I have questions about using the toilet while painted, a subject we shall politely pass over.

Today’s body painting covers a broad range: Verushka’s serious art; other attempts at high art including happenings where painted nudes are used as tools to make images; soft-core porn where painted-on scanty clothing enhances the sexiness of the models; borrowings from fantasy genres; animal imagery; sports team wear; and decorative patterns. There are regular body painting festivals (held in warm weather one assumes). Chasing down links in the Wikipedia entry on body painting, I found Guido Daniele, who has made some extraordinary trompe-l’oeil hand-paintings photographed for use in advertising campaigns, found at  http://www.guidodaniele.com/hand-painting/handpaint-advertising.html.

I insist that painting, clothing, adorning, and mutilating the body, and using the body as a tool, be accounted for in any comprehensive theory about the nature and evolutionary origins of art.

Economic Growth is Obsolete

Modern economies are founded on growth. Without growth, there is stagnation, deflation, unemployment, bread lines and unrest. Liberals and conservatives agree on this, and only differ in their recipes for creating growth.

But aren’t there limits to growth? Can we continue to make and buy more stuff without running out of raw materials and places to dispose of waste?

“Limits to Growth,” published in 1972, used a simple but ingenious computer model that demonstrated the need to curb growth if we were to avoid catastrophic collapse. The book was ridiculed, as were several other books preaching the same gospel. The critics insisted that the limits are illusory; there will always be enough oil, farmland, water, and crucial mineral resources.  Our amazing technology will allow us to overcome any limit you name. After all, it has worked in the past, at least for the privileged minority.

Despite the simplicity of the model, it seems to have captured the essence, and history has tracked its “business as usual” prediction quite closely. Population growth is a prime example. When I was born, there were about 2 billion people on earth. By the time “Limits to Growth” was written, population had nearly doubled to four billion. Around 2023, it will double again, to 8 billion. And the high estimate by the UN has it doubling again by the end of the century. Not only that, but millions who once lived in poverty are moving into middle-class life styles, complete with cars and other luxuries.

Technology has made possible phenomenal growth, and most people in western democracies assume that we will continue to invent our way around natural limits. But this won’t work because major changes in technology take time and are not keeping pace with our increasingly unsustainable growth. For example, replacing fossil fuels is a century-long effort, so climate change is a given – the only issue on the table is how much climate change.

We rely on one “green revolution” after another to increase the yield of farmland, while at the same time losing farmland to development and soil depletion. Tropical forests are being cut to make new farmland, but tropical soils are thin and quickly depleted, and the consequences of exterminating the millions of species that live in or rely on tropical forests are completely unknown. Only 1% of the earth’s water is available for all human uses, and we are using nearly all of it. Water shortages are increasing globally.

We think of the global economy as a robust, well-integrated system that we understand and have under control. This is nonsense: the global economy is an uncontrolled experiment, the future of which is unpredictable. It may be a fragile affair in which the failure of a relatively minor component brings down the whole edifice. It is crucially dependent on honest government, which is in short supply everywhere except in western democracies. It is highly vulnerable to cyberterrorism and war. Its benefits are unevenly distributed, grotesquely so.

In short, there is clear evidence that we have reached or are about to reach limits to growth that we cannot overcome with technology. The obvious solution is to slow growth and spread existing wealth around so everyone has a fair share. Indeed, with regard to climate change, we need rapidly and dramatically to cut back on fossil fuel consumption. But we have yet to invent a global economy based on sustainable stasis, let alone on a reduction in consumption.

So what is in our near future? I think we will do what humans have always done, continue with business as usual, adjusting to new realities as they arise. Crises will develop at an accelerating pace, although when they will arise, what they will be and how they will unfold are unpredictable. This does not stop film makers and novelists from concocting terrifying scenarios.

The future is unpredictable except in one respect: it will not resemble the present for those of us living in western democracies. Not even close.

Authenticity – Part Two

Village in Pays de la Loire region, France
Photo of village in Pays de la Loire region, France

To probe more deeply into the concept of authenticity, I want to present three examples.

Example one: You are walking through a beautiful garden. Flowers are blooming, the trees are in leaf, the grass is green. You lean over to smell a flower and discover to your surprise that it is a highly convincing imitation made of plastic. Suspicious, you check the grass and the trees, and behold, they also are plastic. At a certain level of detail, consistency and continuity abruptly break down. Were the garden real, you could continue to drill down, verifying the authenticity of the environment at every level of detail.

Example two: You live in a Modernist house, with 1950’s modern furniture and decorations. It is a real gem, on everyone’s list of historic houses. You are well-off, and are driving your guests in your BMW to a fine restaurant, where again everything is coordinated and consistent – both your house and the restaurant are works of environmental art. The interior of your BMW is likewise well-designed, and you all step out of the vehicle into the restaurant, leaving the car with the valet. The experience is consistent and continuous. On the way to and from the restaurant, you pass through Typical Suburbia. Most of the buildings you see are pathetic imitations of something else. Behind the rusted and bent guardrails along the road lie abandoned paper cups, plastic bags and weeds. The roads are vast expanses of asphalt, and the vehicles on the roads are each things unto themselves, as a group without coordination or consistency.

The experience is consistent and continuous only because you have shut out most of the environment. Seen from the outside, the experience is profoundly discontinuous, uncoordinated and inconsistent except for the three environments you were able to cherry-pick out of the continuum. Where in the first example there was an abrupt end to the apparent authenticity as you drilled down in scale, here each of the designed elements – the house, the car and the restaurant – are  islands of order in a sea of chaos. You have to tune out everything except the private cocoons of good design that your high income allow you to enjoy. You must exercise selective attention because there are gaps in the environmental continuum

Example three: You are comparing a Model T with a modern SUV. The form of the Model T reflects separate parts each with a clear function: the passenger compartment, wide at the top and narrower at the bottom, just like the human form; the engine in a separate little house with fold-up doors on each side; the wheels, lights, fenders, running boards and spare tire all clearly articulated. Each function is either shrouded with its own skin, or is a separate element attached to the skin or supporting the whole ensemble. If you look at the car from underneath, you see more functional elements. The vehicle is all of a piece. Also, a dent here and there doesn’t spoil the effect, as the car is not trying to be perfect.

1919 Ford Model T Highboy Coupe
1919 Ford Model T Highboy Coupe

The SUV is a far more complex piece of machinery, but the entire vehicle except the wheels is shrouded with a single, perfect shell. While the shell does in some way reflect function its most striking characteristic is how smoothly the surfaces are blended into a perfect shell, one where the slightest scratch is noticeable and spoils the intended perfection. If you look at the car from underneath, you see something entirely different, a bewildering array of functional elements, entirely discontinuous with the perfect carapace above. As a Model T is to a steam locomotive, the SUV is to a diesel locomotive. Some kind of authenticity is lost between the first pair and the second, a third kind of discontinuity.

We routinely cherry-pick the elements of an object or event that we consider relevant to its significance. In the three examples, it seems that something is wrong with the criteria we use to separate the relevant from the accidental, the signal from the noise. So what constitutes a “right” set of criteria? You can’t consider all aspects of a situation to be relevant. To do so you would have to include the moon, social justice, biological evolution, animal rights, baseball stats – there really are no limits to the potentially relevant contexts. Clearly we have to make choices about which contexts are relevant and which aren’t. To do this, we need criteria.

This conundrum exposes a deeper level to the concept of authenticity. The authenticity of an object or event seems to be determined by the criteria used to establish relevance. They must in some way be “right”; the puzzle is figuring out what “right” means. I believe that if we can identify these criteria, we can learn a great deal about art in particular, and human experience in general.

The Evolution of Trumps

Everyone, and I mean everyone, is trying to trace the chain of circumstances that has led us to the ascendancy of the Ultimate Narcissist. Each of us will come up with a unique combination of causal forces and trends, and cite a unique set of historical precedents. I propose to follow ecologist William Rees’ lead and trace the phenomenon back to its origins in evolved human nature.

All life is founded on growth. A species will increase in number until reined in by its environment. Predators, disease, parasites, competition, food supply, climate, geology, natural disasters and many other factors work together to constrain a species from overrunning the earth. Remove an important constraint and the species will expand to take advantage of the new situation, until a new constraint kicks in. Animals live far longer in zoos than in the wild.

Humans have a combination of evolved traits that allow us to push aside one constraint after another, and an urge to do so. In the several million years in which our ancestors honed the integrated package of skills that make us so “successful,” we have evaded environmental constraints by the ingenious means of remodeling the environment.

Having carried our renovation project far past anything that could reasonably be called sustainable, we now have to pay the bills, which are coming in thick and fast, global warming being only one of a long list of debts past due.

Our response has been to continue worshiping at the altar of growth and progress, running up new debt as fast as we can. Naturally, this strategy is not working. To pay off our environmental debt, or at least keep from going further into debt, we need to cut back on our exploitation. This means deflating our economies, and as any economist will tell you, that is a disastrous course. Yet it is the only possible alternative; we should not be looking to economists for answers, because the whole science of economics is founded on exploiting the environment.

As Rees points out, we have over the last 70 years gone from being citizens, working together to get through WWII, to being consumers. The idea of giving up something for the sake of the common good has largely gone out of style. From our libertarian roots has sprouted a grotesque culture of acquisitiveness. We have far more freedom and property than the vast majority of the global population, yet we want more of each. We have become a nation of narcissists.

Enter the Ultimate Narcissist, He wraps up in his persona the aspirations of a people, we Americans, who have become dependent upon the privileges and comforts made possible by raping the earth and globally exploiting the weak. He is all about getting his, at anyone’s expense, and calls anyone a “loser” who doesn’t focus on getting theirs. We have to exclude the destitute because they will eat some of our pie.

Perhaps it seems odd that the people who are being exploited by oligarchs like Trump support this outspoken advocate of exploitation for personal gain, but as a friend pointed out to me, if you aspire to be an exploiter yourself, it is not surprising that you would support the privileges that come with exploitation. Trump is a great role model for a people who want it all.

And if you are as disgusted by Trump as I am, don’t get too comfortable. I trust if you are reading my blog that you believe in fairness and the equitable redistribution of wealth. Ask yourself what you would voluntarily give up in order to reduce your share to the global average. It would mean cutting down on your consumption of goods and services by a factor of four. What would you choose to save? Let’s start with Novocain and work our way down the list. Forget suburbia and cars, what about meat, toilet paper, clean water, air conditioning, knee replacements, a medicine cabinet full of pills, education, science, art? What about living like a Chinese family of five in a 400 SF apartment?

We have evolved into a nation of Trumps. He has cast off all pretense at fairness and preached the contemporary American ethic in its raw state. If you don’t like what you hear, come up with an alternative that doesn’t rely on the insanity of continued growth. I can’t do it, and I doubt if you can. As Pogo famously said on Earth Day, 1971, we have met the enemy and he is us.

More Sense on Senses

It appears that bacteria have over 100 sensing mechanisms. Quoting  [my underlining] http://www.angelfire.com/linux/vjtorley/senses.html

“According to John S. Parkinson, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, “most organisms – even bacteria – can sense sound, light, pressure, gravity and chemicals” (University of Utah, 2002). E. coli bacteria “can sense and respond to changes in temperature, osmolarity, pH, noxious chemicals, DNA-damaging agents, mineral abundance, energy sources, electron acceptors, metabolites, chemical signals from other bacteria, and parasites” (Meyers and Bull, 2002, p. 555). Bacteria are very sensitive to chemicals – for instance, E. coli bacteria have five different kinds of sensors which they use to detect food. As Di Primio, Muller and Lengeler (2000, pp. 4 – 5) explain, common bacteria like E. coli swim in chemical gradients towards attractants (e.g. glucose) or away from repellents (e.g. benzoate) – a phenomenon known as chemotaxis. Other bacteria display phototaxis and magnetotaxis, or movement in response to light and magnetic fields, respectively (Martin and Gordon, 2001, p. 219). Bacteria possess an elaborate chemosensory signaling pathway, which involves the phosphorylation (combination with phosphorus compounds) of a set of proteins in the cytoplasm of a bacterial cell (Blair, 1995, p. 489).

There are several philosophical questions relating to the sensitive capacities of bacteria. Should we call these capacities bona fide senses? For that matter, what are senses, anyway? Is there a distinction between sensing an object, and being sensitive to (or being affected by) it? And is the possession of senses by an organism a sufficient condition for its having perceptions (which, in common parlance, are mental states), or can an organism have senses without the capacity to have perceptions?”

The article continues with an in-depth philosophical discussion that is quite interesting but probably too abstruse for most readers – I didn’t have the patience to read it through. Is it worthwhile to “translate” obsolete ideas by Aristotle into modern terms, as does the author, or is this merely a source of confusion? You can decide by reading the post.

Bottom line, my comment that bacteria don’t have sense organs is incorrect. Whether they have perceptions is up for grabs, an issue that is addressed in the article.

Authenticity – Part One

Monterey, California 1959
Monterey, California 1959

There is strong evidence from cognitive psychology that we are by nature highly attuned to detecting cheaters. This makes evolutionary sense, because one of our distinctions as a species is our cooperativeness, our ability to trust and share with others. Cheaters naturally arise in an environment of trust, and our obsession with cheater detection limits the number of cheaters in a group. We punish cheaters, as well as those who fail to punish cheaters.

We are also obsessed about genealogy. One of the reasons languages tend to develop arbitrary rules that have little to do with transmitting meaning is to sharpen the ability of experienced speakers to detect outsiders. In “My Fair Lady,” ’Enry ‘Iggins claimed to be able to tell what London block someone came from by their accent.  Early humans evolved in small groups, and it was important to know who was “in” and who was “out,” not only to know who was on your side, but to avoid incest. Likewise, we are exquisitely sensitive to nuances of the appearance and behavior of others. We are deeply interested in whether the person across from us is genuinely smiling, or just putting on a smiley face while wishing you would go away. The battle between our drive to reproduce and our need to establish the authenticity of our partner’s professions of love figures in the plot of many a tale (sadly, this obsession with whether we are insiders or outsiders underlies our xenophobia).

Both art and science rely heavily on these two traits working together. Doing science is intensely cooperative and based on trust, so science cheaters make headlines and lose their credibility, and often their jobs. Also, it must be possible in principle to trace the genealogy of evidence back through all the actions taken to arrive at it. Scientists are highly skeptical and openly critical of each other, and as a result, there is a culture of cooperation and trust that makes it unnecessary to check every step in a discovery unless someone smells a rat, In the end, the findings of science are the consensus of experts (I borrow this from a lecture at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole by Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes). I have more to say on this subject elsewhere.

Genealogy is important in art for similar reasons. Much of the value of a work of art depends on how sure you are that it is genuine. Musicologists research and argue about whether a note in a score was intended to be an A or an A#, how and when improvised decorative figures were originally used in the Baroque and Classical eras, or whether a newly discovered chorale was written by Bach, a contemporary of Bach, or a present-day charlatan. Never mind that the average listener can’t tell the difference – the experts can. Art that can be faked needs a pedigree to maintain its monetary value, and as these are not always easy to document, cheating is more widespread in art than in science.

One much-discussed subject is why an art work with a pedigree is better in some way. Can’t a work be judged simply through your senses? Imagine three Federal style silver cups. They are all exquisite and physically identical, except that the first is by an unknown silversmith, the second is by Paul Revere, and the third, also by Paul Revere, was owned by George Washington. No doubt their monetary value is in the same order, and escalates dramatically from one to the other. Yet without their pedigrees (no fair turning them over to see the silversmith’s marks on the bottom) they are indistinguishable.

You can see that provenance is much more important in science than in art, because the whole enterprise of science is founded on authenticity, whereas a work of art can in principle stand on its own, although its monetary value and part or most of its public appeal lies in its provenance.

When talking about authenticity, I think most of us would equate it with whether something is genuinely what it is advertised to be. But there are other aspects to authenticity that are more subtle and more interesting, and I want to focus on those in subsequent installments.

Odd Man Out

The Author at Age 4
The Author at Age 4

I was, and am, an odd duck. One manifestation of this is that I withdraw from things other people do. I hated sports. I can vividly recall an incident from the sixth grade, probably reconstructed from several such incidents, when despite my being placed in the relatively safe position of right field, some jerk swung late and the ball headed straight for me. The damn thing was big and hard and moving fast, and humans evolved to get out of the way of such things, which I did. Groans, “Tully’s done it again,” that sort of thing. Luckily, the rare hit in my direction usually dropped short and rolled (if I stood far enough out), so that I could, with luck, pick it up and throw it to the wrong base.

Music was important to me in my teens, but not the music everyone else listened to. I went to the library and picked out 78 records that I had not heard, discovering Bartok and Bantock and especially Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps which I listened to over and over with an equally maladjusted friend, letting my imagination run wild through the mists of prehistoric time. My high school peers were listening to rock and roll, the newest thing in the 1950’s, and to me they were illiterate unwashed hoodlums who spent their time in car shop chopping and channeling old Fords to make hot rods. I was far above such trash. I was an intellectual. I belonged to the model railroad club. It didn’t help that my much older brother, a talented jazz trumpeter, shared my disdain for rock and roll.

Berkeley was a shock. In my third semester, when I lived in an apartment instead of a dorm, my virginity was terminated by an older woman (Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was on the radio). Later, she persuaded me to leave college and go with her to the Olympic Peninsula to pick ferns (such people were called “Bohemians” in those pre-hippie days). My mother had to take the train up from LA to keep me in school. I withdrew from the relationship when she called me at 2 AM during summer break, waking the whole household because in those days you had one phone in the middle of the house and everyone’s door was open because no one had air conditioning.

My first drunk was sensational. At some point I withdrew from being conscious. The first thing I remember was being led around the block by the girl assigned to bring me back to earth. For the next month I heard one tale after another, told with malicious hilarity, about how I had made passes at every female present. I quenched the terrifying prospect of being successful with women by getting sick thereafter whenever I had too much to drink.

But I digress. Over my life, I have withdrawn from one aspect of cultural life after another. As I describe elsewhere, I stepped outside religion at age 14 (I’m back, sort of). I enjoyed television for many years, until my wife and I decided we just didn’t have the time or the patience to pick the wheat from the mountains of chaff and gave up the habit when I was 60 or so. This makes it hard to converse and can cause embarrassment.

For example, as I write, Prince has just died. I had heard the name, and an extravagant fuss was made over his passing, so I went to You-Tube and watched “Cream,” from 1991. It was the classiest pornography I have ever seen, even better than the cover of Cosmo. The guy was a genius, and I missed him entirely. Oh, well, I did tune into Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin and The Wall, thanks to the kids. A noted psychoanalyst friend and his wife introduced me to the Sergeant Pepper album and I never looked back. I introduced her to Bartok. How could she not have known about Bartok?

Having bowed out of a belief system shared by most Americans, along with popular culture, I was on a roll. Over the years, I and others have observed that our infrastructure is not being maintained. I was all in favor of a crash program to repair infrastructure until I read an article by a civil engineer pointing out that our infrastructure is a Ponzi scheme. Here’s how it works.

Americans like to live in the country, but they have to work in the city. Americans do not like to pay taxes or mortgage payments. Solution: divide up the cheap farmland into little parcels, connect them with roads and bridges, and add sewer, water, electricity, telephone, cable, gas, street lights and other infrastructure. Build inexpensive houses out of wood, which is OK because they aren’t attached to each other, so you can burn up your home without burning up your your neighbors’ homes.

Now most infrastructure has a life span of 60 to 100 years, so you need to salt away some property taxes in a trust fund to repair the infrastructure and replace it when it wears out. This is an unpopular idea. Bernie Madoff to the rescue! Build more infrastructure so you get more taxes, and use the new taxes to fix the old infrastructure. This works splendidly until the infrastructure needs to be replaced.

So our suburban approach to living doesn’t work. I spent many years designing nice solar houses for people living in suburbs, doing research on building houses, and writing and teaching about houses. Now I had to admit that this was all a mistake and that I must in good conscience withdraw from this wicked practice. I love designing houses and must admit to cheating from time to time. Inconveniently, we live in a suburban house.

This led me to the notion that civilization is a Ponzi scheme. Think about it: we invent a clever way to do things, and then we have to invent another clever thing to deal with the unexpected consequences of the first clever thing. Take mills for instance. We invented machines to do the more work with fewer workers, but mill-owners exploited the workers, so we needed rules and bureaucracy to stop them. More bureaucracy means more taxes, and as I just mentioned Americans don’t like taxes (or rules for that matter). So we skimp on taxes and the infrastructure stops working.

Mill on the Mayenne, 2001
Mill on the Mayenne, 2001

Another example: whale oil is a lot better for making light than wood or wax, so we cut down a lot of trees to build whaling ships. Just as we were running out of whales, we discovered oil. This saved the whales for a while, but oil made shipping cheaper, so now the ships are threatening whales with their noise.

Well, if civilization is a Ponzi scheme, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. I needed perspective to think about this, but withdrawing from civilization did not appeal to me. The next best thing was pretending to be a visiting alien, which given my history as an outsider wasn’t all that hard. A little observation convinced me that human nature was to blame.

First I had to decide whether human nature exists. This is controversial. John Locke back in the 17th Century decided that there wasn’t much to human nature because we were born with minds that are blank slates (except of course for those pesky instincts like sex) and we learn how to behave through experience.

On the other side of the net were people like Hobbes and Machiavelli, who thought humans have a nature and that it is intractably wicked (I’m not sure what they thought of themselves). The battle lines were drawn: it was nature versus nurture.

Today scientists generally agree that we have a human nature, but that how it gets expressed varies a lot due to our having big heads. We are born prematurely because a fully developed brain won’t fit through the birth canal, so the long trek from conception to maturity leaves ample time for our parents, peers and culture to shape how our human nature is expressed.

Some psychologists and other scientists believe that we can overcome the parts of human nature that we don’t like by using conscious reasoning. Others believe that for all practical purposes, we can’t and don’t. I subscribe to the latter school.

Of course, as my son pointed out, this raises the question of why I am so sure about which school I belong to, because I must have used conscious reasoning to arrive at my decision. That’s why I inserted that little “for all practical purposes” qualifier. I believe we really can reason consciously, it’s just not something one normally does. But I may be wrong about this – I think.

Some people, especially scientists, believe that science is how you find out what’s actually going on in the world because it deals with facts you can demonstrate by experiment. If you use science, you can get to the moon, although we don’t normally do this either. Whereas if you use prayer or magic or certain chemicals, you may THINK you went to the moon, but you didn’t actually go there, according to scientists and probably most of your friends. (Some people believe the moon trips by astronauts were an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the government to force Colgate to use fluoride in their toothpaste – it worked!)

All this inspired me to look further, and I found a scientist who cleared things up for me. He pointed out that we are the kind of animal that doesn’t have an “off” switch for acquiring things. This seems about right, based on how much stuff my wife and I have in our basement and attic. During 50 years of marriage one tends to accumulate stuff.

For example, we have 3 or 4 nifty U-shaped vegetable peelers. You really only need one. We found that they worked as well as the guy who peeled mountains of vegetables at the Boston Flower Show said they did. They get dull after a while, so we bought new ones, but couldn’t part with the old ones. We are thinking of moving, so stuff is on my mind.

I believe that I have to withdraw from the human race to think about all this. This is definitely a challenge, but I am working on it. Luckily, I have a head start.

The Wonderful, and Wonderfully Misleading, Powers of Ten


I was lucky enough to study in my first year of college under the designer/architect Charles Eames, inventor of the molded plywood chair (among many other things). He showed us the first draft of a movie he called “Powers of Ten” which zoomed in and out in a sequence of images depicting what you would see if every ten seconds you multiplied the distance by a factor of ten. The movie moved outward to galactic scales, then inward to atomic particle scales, covering 40 powers of ten. On the trip out, the first version had a neat clock that showed you what percent of the speed of light you were moving. This was dropped from the version referenced.

Eames remade the movie in 1977, advised by a number of scientists including Philip Morrison, a physicist who also narrated the film. You can find it at http://www.gearthblog.com/blog/archives/2012/02/the_powers_of_ten.html

Philip Morrison is one of my heroes. He worked on the Manhattan Project and could read a substantial book in a day. He wrote the book reviews during the golden years of Scientific American when Martin Gardner was writing “Mathematical Games” and the magazine featured beautiful pointillist pencil drawings.

The link takes you to the Google Earth blog, unsurprisingly, since Google Earth uses the same technique to zoom you in to your chosen site (except it “only” zooms by 7 powers of ten, i.e. ten million times). Another term for powers of ten is order of magnitude.

Powers of ten is a way of thinking about exponential growth. The concept is a two-edged sword. One edge is an indispensable tool for understanding nature; the other is among the most misleading concepts in modern life. “Powers of Ten” allows us in just a few minutes to visualize the smallest thing we have direct evidence for (quarks) and the largest (super-clusters of galaxies), over 40 powers of ten.

Thinking in terms of powers of ten is routine for mathematicians, scientists and statisticians. But in our daily lives things grow by adding up. We think and act linearly, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on. Thinking exponentially you get 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 and so on. Already in just eight steps, powers of two has outdistanced our thinking by a factor of eight. Using powers of ten, you get 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000, 10,000,000. Eight steps and you go from an individual to nearly the population of New York City.

This huge disparity in modes of thinking can be seen more clearly using examples.

There is a famous Chinese story about a poor man who was granted a wish from the Emperor. He asked that he be given one grain of rice, but added the stipulation that on each successive day, he would receive twice what he had received on the previous day (powers of 2, or doubling). In a month he owned just over a billion grains (230) and it wasn’t long before he owned all the rice in China.

Another often-cited example is lilies on a pond. Let’s say your pond is 750 feet in diameter, which comes out to 10 acres – nice big pond. Let’s assume a lily takes up 1 square foot, and that the number of lilies doubles every year.

You start with one lily, hardly noticeable. After sixteen years, you have just the lily patch you were looking for, covering about about 3/4 of an acre. The next year, however, the lilies cover one-and a half acres and you begin to worry. The next year they cover 3 acres, the year after that 6 acres, and before the end of the next year the entire pond is covered. So it took 16 years to get where you wanted, then less then 3 years to obliterate the pond. This illustration from the wonderful YouTube channel XKCD illustrates the point humorously.


Some wonderful examples that translate a huge power of ten (67 orders of magnitude) can be found illustrated at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObiqJzfyACM on one of my favorite YouTube science channels, “Vsauce” narrated by Michael Stevens. The whole 20 minute episode is worth watching, but the examples illustrating a huge power of ten starts at minute 14.

Finally, to illustrate the futility of manned space flight, consider this. It is hard to get a grasp on the sobering fact that the universe is almost empty of matter as we experience it. Of the three components of the mass of our universe, ordinary matter accounts for maybe 2-3 percent, the rest being mysterious “dark matter” and the even more ubiquitous and mysterious “dark energy.”

Our solar system, which compared with outer space is as crowded as a subway platform, is terrifyingly empty. I made a conceptual model of our solar system at a scale of 1 billion to one, set in a place familiar to many. Here is an illustration showing the model:

Manhattan small


Imagine that the sun is a ball about four and one-half feet in diameter, on a pedestal in the Grand Army Plaza in front of the Plaza Hotel at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

The orbit of Mercury, the inmost planet, crosses 5th Avenue a block away, at 60th Street, and is about half the diameter of your little fingernail. Venus at 61th Street and Earth near 62nd street are about the size of your middle fingernail. Our moon is half the size of a pencil eraser and is 15” from the earth.

Mars, another block away, is a little bigger than Mercury. Then there is a gap where the asteroid belt occurs, with the largest asteroid being virtually invisible, the size of a fine grain of sand. Outside the gap is the first of the “giant” gaseous planets, Jupiter, which in this model is the breathtaking size of a large grapefruit, with an orbit that crosses 5th Avenue around 70th Street. Another 7 blocks gets us to softball-sized Saturn. At 95th Street we encounter the orbit of Uranus, which like Neptune at 115th Street is 2” in diameter.

In this model, the orbit of Neptune, now the outermost planet, swings out over the Hudson and into Union City, NJ, then back across the river and down Houston Street, across Brooklyn and Queens passing through the Sunnyside Railroad Yards before crossing the East River back into East Harlem. This is plotted on another Google Earth image:

Manhattan large

Now that you have a sense of the sizes of these bodies and their orbits, try to imagine away everything else: the earth below, New York City, the sky above, and replace it with black emptiness. Just a 4-1/2 foot ball of fire surrounded by tiny spheres slowly orbiting in one plane, the outermost of which is almost 3 miles away and the size of a golf ball. And this is a high density of matter by the standards of the universe.

Within this disk of orbiting motes 5 ½ miles in diameter we humans have traveled the distance from your elbow to your fingertips. Mars is 150 feet away, while the nearest star at this scale is the distance of a trip around the earth, 25,000 miles. We talk a good game about fleeing into the galaxy when the going gets too tough here on earth, but the facts are starkly clear: we will forever need to cling to the nurturing surface of our tiny speck in the vast emptiness that surrounds us.

It pays to keep our nest in good shape, as it is all the home we will ever have.

More on Income Inequality

Our friend Anne Orange sent a chart showing relative global income inequality (not wealth inequality), which led me to this site on NY Times: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/the-haves-and-the-have-nots/?_r=0

It contains this chart:


The horizontal axis is how much you make, broken into 20 equal percentage groups at 5% each. The vertical axis is where your income stands relatively to the rest of the globe. What the chart shows is that the poorest 5% of USA population are as rich as the richest 5% of Indians. Income has been adjusted to even out what you can buy with your money.

The steepness of the curve shows relative income inequality. If everyone made the same, it would be a straight horizontal line, at a height on the chart representing how prosperous you are. If the curve arches up, that indicates less income inequality than if is sags in the middle.

The NYT author Catherine Rampell quotes the author of the book “The Haves and the Have-Nots,” by Branko Milanovic from which this was taken:

One’s income thus crucially depends on citizenship, which in turn means (in a world of rather low international migration) place of birth. All people born in rich countries thus receive a location premium or a location rent; all those born in poor countries get a location penalty.

It is easy to see that in such a world, most of one’s lifetime income will be determined at birth.

In the US, 80% of your life’s potential is determined by where you were born and who your parents are. So that leaves a 20% chance to cash in on the Horatio Alger myth. I believe that this stat goes far to explain the difference between Republicans, who believe that ratio is more like 20% and 80%, and Democrats who are more in line with the reality.

If we are so rich, why are so many people unhappy? Why do they feel so poor? Good questions.