Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimroy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

Late Night Thoughts: Ice Cream, Reasoning, Robots, Wisdom, and More

(About a 6 minute read) 

The other day I woke up feeling pretty much under the weather.  I stumbled onto my blog bleary-eyed and somehow deleted a whole post while trying to fix a mistake in grammar.  After that, I spilled half a pound of coffee beans on the floor while getting almost not a one of them into my grinder.  Not yet recognizing that it wasn’t my day, I wrote 500 words for a blog post before realizing I wasn’t making any sense even by my lax standards.  This time the delete was intentional.  A sane man would have gone back to bed at that point.  Naturally, I didn’t.

Instead, I somehow got it into my head to catch up on what’s going on in politics.  I was still catatonic when the paramedics found me two days later After reading three or four articles the thought occurred to me that any sensible and informed person these days must feel a whole lot like I felt that morning: Our hopes and intentions are so far out of line with the bizarre reality of the times.  It almost seems as if the feeling, “This isn’t my day”, has become expanded to include most of the world.

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It is sometimes said that a difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more concerned with humanity than they are with individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with individuals than they are with humanity.  As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov,  “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

It seems to me that — regardless of whether one is a liberal or a conservative — those two extremes are both inadequate in and of themselves.  The liberal position leads to treating the people one knows like dogs, the conservative position leads to treating the people one doesn’t know like dogs.

Now, the older I get the more I expect to find such “twists” in life.  That is, I have come to largely agree with Immanuel Kant:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

What could our human nature not accomplish if our human nature did not stand in our way?

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I recently came across an article stating that eating ice cream for breakfast improves brain performance.  I immediately began dancing around my cottage for half an hour in gratitude to whatever deity or deities had arranged the world such than eating ice cream could be thought of as a duty.

Even since, I have been eating ice cream for breakfast, but alas!  With no discernible results.

Still, this is not something to be lightly dismissed.  One has a duty, you know.  I must redouble my efforts.  Obviously, the problem is I have not been eating enough ice cream to see any results yet.  Obviously.

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I think it was W. Edwards Deming who used to begin his graduate seminars with an experiment.  He would place a large glass jar full of marbles in front of the class, which typically numbered about thirty students.  Then he would ask the students to guess how many marbles were in the jar.

Their individual answers were typically wildly off the mark — either way too high, or way too low.  And yet — consistently in class after class — when their answers were averaged, the result was within 5% of the actual number of marbles.   As a group, the students were always more accurate than most of them were as individuals.

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It seems to me quite possible that how people reason might be almost as subject to fashion as how people dress.

The rules for what constitutes good reasoning might not change much, but certainly what constitutes “acceptable” reasoning can change quite a bit.   By “acceptable” I mean what a majority — or at least a large minority — of us think is good reasoning.

I suspect many of us don’t learn how to reason from a competent instructor so much as from media figures such as talk show hosts and their often questionable guests.  Even advertisements teach a form of reasoning.  It might not often be a sound form of reasoning, but it’s a form nonetheless.  It would make an interesting study to see if the popularity of certain kinds of arguments changed from one decade to the next.

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It seems possible that robots will at some point become sophisticated enough that someone will start making “lovebots”.  That is, artificial lovers.   At which point one wonders when sex education classes will become as hands-on as instruction in tennis or driving?

I have no idea whether such a thing will become commonplace in public education, but I can certainly foresee special academies for it — private schools that use robots to teach love making.

Then again, I think it’s only a matter of time before genetics advances to the point that we have pets with glow in the dark fur.  I am, quite obviously, bonkers.

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Is chocolate also good brain food?  Might be.   Better eat some just to be on the safe side.  Is duty.

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According to Barry Lopez, the Inuit word for “wise person” literally translates as, “one who makes wisdom visible [through their behavior]”.   If we in the West had a corresponding translation for “wise person” it would doubtlessly be something along the lines of, “one who speaks wisely”, for we typically assume that someone who says wise things is actually wise.

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Often enough, great intelligence, or great wisdom, is shown less by what someone says or does than by what they do not say or do.

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An inability to laugh at oneself can be as creepy as showing up in a clown costume at a funeral.

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We so often blame our emotions for the bad behavior of our psychological self.  We say, for instance, that our anger at Smith got out of hand.  But before there was our anger, there was our ego’s perception that Smith slighted us.   Without that perception, we would not have been angry at Smith in the first place.

Speaking Ill of the Dead

(About a 3 minute read) 

The death this morning of Roger Ailes prompted someone to ask why it is customary in the West to not speak ill of the dead, and whether there was still any merit to the custom.

Ailes, the co-founder of Fox News who for decades was a leading force in conservative politics in America, died this morning at the age of 77.  You can find The New York Times report here.  He was, to put it mildly, a controversial figure, one who is certain to be spoken ill of in many quarters today, custom notwithstanding.  And, of course, many people will scold those who do speak ill of him on the grounds that it is neither customary nor seemly to do so.   But is the custom justified?

Like so many Western cultural traits, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead seems to go back to the ancient Greeks.  Around 600 B.C., Chilon of Sparta — one of the “Seven Sages” of ancient Greece — is reputed to have said, “Don’t badmouth the dead”.  Around 2000 years later, during the Italian Renaissance, his words were popularized by a humanist monk as,  “Of the dead, nothing unless good”.  And thus the notion comes down to us today.

I have heard it said that we should not speak ill of the dead in order to honor them, or at least to honor the good they did in life.  But I don’t buy into those notions.   I think there are people who were so vile that honoring them is borderline immoral.  And to honor the good they did amounts to a species of dishonesty in light of the evil they did.

If there is today still some reason not to speak ill of the dead, that reason might have more to do with us than with them.   Death is one of the most poignant and powerful reminders that, in the end, we are all human.  It seems to me that a brief period of grace — perhaps only the time between one’s death and one’s burial — during which we do not speak ill of the deceased would drive home the lesson of our common humanity.

We live in an age in which nearly everyone is at risk of having their humanity denied by other people at sometime or another.  All you need do to see the truth of that is go on anyone of tens of thousands of websites and announce a political opinion that’s unpopular on that site.  Sooner or later thereafter someone — perhaps many people — will vilify you, demonize you, dehumanize you.  And that is a dangerous situation:  At a minimum, it is not conducive to liberal democracy, which rests on compromise; and at worse, wars and genocides are made of such things.  A society — or world — can only hold together when it is widely recognized that our commonalities outweigh our differences.

The remembrance that we all have in common the same ultimate fate would help, I think, to put things in perspective for many of us.   Moreover, a few days in which we do not speak ill of the dead might go far in reminding of us of that.

Having said all that, I think remarkably controversial figures, such as Ailes, present a special problem.  Their deaths almost invariably become political occasions.  There is a rush by politicians, pundits, and others to make use of their passing in order to further agendas.  It might be noble to refrain from criticizing the dead under such circumstances, but certainly, it is not always practical to refrain.

In general, though, I think the practice of not speaking ill of the dead is a good one.  But what do you think?  Your comments, views, thoughts, and feelings are welcome.

Personality and Prediction

(About a 3 minute read)

Around 2500 years ago, the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers conceived the notion that nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner.   As it turns out, that’s a rather interesting notion.

Consider, for example, the well-known tendency of thongs to ride up a person’s butt.  Today, we quite easily assume a thong will do that because of impersonal properties and forces.  We do not ascribe the action to the wicked will and personality of thongs — except perhaps in jest.  But the fact we think thongs ride up butts because of the laws of nature — and not because they most wickedly want or desire to ride up butts — is a legacy of the Pre-Socratics.  It was they who pointed out that nature is impersonal and obeys laws.

Modern science rests on that notion (and a hundred other notions).   If we did not today think nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner, it would be impossible for us to do science.

But why hasn’t it always occurred to us that nature is law-like and impersonal?  Why did that particular truth need to be discovered by the Pre-Socratics?  Why wasn’t it always known?

Allow me to suggest that it wasn’t always known because for most of our evolutionary history, we have thought of nature as personal.  Not as law-like and impersonal.  But as personal.

It appears that thinking of things as having a personality is a way in which the human mind predicts what those things will do.  Indeed, it may be our oldest and most traditional way of predicting the future.

When I think that my neighbor is currently cheerful, I have not yet ascribed to him a personality.  But when I think that my neighbor is characteristically cheerful, when I think he is more likely to be cheerful than not, then I have ascribed to him a personality.   To think of someone as having a personality is to predict, to some extent, their future behavior.

It is easy enough to see why an ability to think of people as persons — as having personalities — would be advantageous to survival.  All else being equal, the better you can predict someone’s behavior, the better you can deal with them.   Yet, humans are not merely capable of seeing other humans as having personalities.  Indeed, we are capable of seeing almost anything as having a personality.

You can see this tendency of ours to personify things even today — even 2500 years after the Pre-Socratic philosophers told us nature does not have personalities, but is instead impersonal. It is quite common for people to think of their car or their computer as having a personality.  Or the weather.   It’s possible that many of us live with one foot in an ancient world where natural things have personalities and with one foot in a somewhat more modern world where natural things are impersonal.

So perhaps it took us so long to invent or discover the notion that nature is law-like and impersonal because our species has traditionally thought of things as having personalities.  If that’s true, then it would not seem intuitive to us to think of nature as law-like and impersonal.

At any rate, just an afternoon thought.


Originally published September 24, 2009.

Diane

(About a 7 minute read)

Diane had a wicked sense of humor.  Usually, she didn’t repeat jokes she had heard, but rather made them up on the spot.  But besides being creative, she was quite level-headed and down to earth.

She was the evening manager of a fast food restaurant.  After we’d gotten to know each other, I took to staying late in my office so I could drop by her restaurant around seven or eight o’clock on the nights she worked.  We’d sit together in the dining room for two or three hours until the restaurant closed.

Diane had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen on anyone, a pretty good figure for someone who’d had two children, and dirty blond hair.  Her facial features included high cheekbones and an angular chin.  I think Diane’s most beautiful feature after her eyes was her grin. It was wide and generous.

Our conversations were rarely serious, or at least not wholly serious.  Once, Diane soberly mentioned she’d been raised in a nondenominational Christian church before becoming an agnostic around the age of 18 or so.  Somehow that quickly led to a flood of jokes about preaching.  Yet, there were almost always truths wrapped within the jokes — insights into each other’s lives, views, and values.

One of the very few times when we discussed something that neither one of us laughed at occurred about a year after we’d met.  As usual we were sitting in the restaurant when, for some reason I’ll never know, Diane’s mood abruptly changed.  “There’s something I want to tell you, Paul, but it has to be a secret between us.”

“Sure”, I said a bit too casually.

“No a real secret.  You can’t tell anyone.”

“I promise”, I said, becoming attentive.  After searching my face, Diane glanced away, as if gathering her thoughts.

“When I was seven years old, Paul, someone in my family taught me to give him blowjobs.  He’d pay me a quarter.  I’m not sure why, but I want you to know that about me.”

“God!  I mean…God!”  I was too shocked to say more at the moment.  “What…Who was it?” I finally asked.

“I don’t want to tell you who”, she spoke calmly,  “But it messed with me.  When I started having sex, I couldn’t at first take pleasure in it.  I thought I was fridged.  It took me a long time to learn how to enjoy it.”   Diane went on to describe how she’d overcome her initial inability to take pleasure in sex.  As she spoke, I became aware of the emphasis she was placing on her success at healing herself, and the almost casual way she now seemed to all but dismiss the early abuse of her.

“Diane…”  I paused, searching for the right words.  “A handful of women have told me about being abused as children, but I think you’re the only one I know who has gone so far in overcoming the problems it caused them.”  Diane thanked me for my understanding, and for the first time since she had begun her story, she smiled.  “It’s been quite a journey, Paul.”  Her smile, I realized, was one of victory.

Our evenings together lasted about two years.  During that time I came to regard Diane as my best friend in the city.  I wondered if she felt the same about me.  One night I decided to test her interest by suggesting we go to a movie that weekend.  She enthusiastically agreed.

When Saturday night came, however, she was late showing up at my apartment, where we’d arranged to meet.  A couple hours went by, and then another.  Finally, she called.  She was on her way, and would be there in 30 minutes.  Yet, by the time she arrived, it was too late to go to a movie, so we sat on opposite ends of my couch making small talk.

At some point during the evening, I decided on an impulse that it would be a wonderfully good idea to tongue her ear, so I casually crossed over to her end of the couch, and proceeded to do just that.  As it happened that was indeed a wonderfully good idea because her ears were among her erogenous zones, and she was quickly overcome with pleasure, which I thought was yet another wonderfully good idea.

We then spent the next six or so hours walloping each other with pleasure in every way we could imagine to do so.  Afterwards, she fell asleep in my arms for about an hour and a half until I had to wake her up, for she was pulling a double shift that day by working both the day and the night shifts.

Late in the evening of the day after our love-making, I drove over to her restaurant, parked my car, walked up to the door of the restaurant, and observed Diane behind the counter talking to a co-worker while grinning ear to ear and laughing uproariously.

It was the last time I would hear her laughter for several months.

The moment she caught sight of me, the happiness in her face popped out of existence almost as fast as it takes to snap your fingers. It was replaced by an expression of pure worry, and she placed her hand over her stomach as if something felt wrong with it.

I think I might have turned to look behind me to discover what had caused the change in her expression, because I couldn’t imagine it would be me, but I can’t entirely recall now whether or not I did.   At any rate, when we spoke to each other, she quickly asked me to go back to my car and wait for her.  I did.

It was a long wait.  Naturally, I had no clue what it all meant.  And I was pretty anxious when she at last came up to my car to kneel beside it and speak to me through the open window.

“I’m sorry I made you wait so long, but I was hoping you would leave so I wouldn’t need to speak to you.  Please, Paul, forgive me for being a coward.”

Leave?  Forgive? Coward?  I didn’t understand a word she said.

She went on, “All day today, I was happy.  I didn’t think about last night even once, but then I saw you and my stomach instantly dropped to my feet.  I’ve never felt it sink that fast and low before in my life.   That’s how I learned something was wrong, very wrong about what we did last night.”

I couldn’t believe what I was now hearing.  I stumbled out some question about whether last night’s sex had been that bad.

“No”, she said, “Honestly, Paul, that was some of the best sex of my life.”

I was now totally lost.  Some of the best sex of her life?  The worse sinking feeling she’d could remember having?  Nothing in what she said was aligning well enough to make sense, but it was just dawning on me that she was in the process of dumping me.

“You made me feel like a slut, Paul.”  She didn’t say it accusingly, but she said it with sad conviction.  “That was our first date and we should not have had sex.  We should have waited.  I can’t live with being reminded that I’m a slut, and you remind me of that.  That’s got to be the reason my stomach fell when I saw you.  It has to be.  I have never felt so guilty and ashamed in my life.”

Now to put all of the above in context, this was the first completely irrational thing I’d heard from Diane.  It wasn’t like her to run around with a tin foil hat on and a club for beating off alien abductors.  She was in my experience, always a reasonable person right up until that night.

I was so surprised I could think of nothing to say besides, “What do you want me to do?”

“Please leave. Please go home.  And please don’t come back unless I call you back. I think the best way I can get over it is alone.”

I drove off that night without having said a thing to change her mind.  I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything that might persuade her she was being unreasonable, let alone persuade her to relent.

We didn’t see each other again for several months, but we eventually got together again a few times — albeit never sexually.  I was unsure of her now — too unsure to want sex with her.  But I wasn’t angry with her, and I bore no grudge against her.  Diane’s irrational behavior had been incomprehensible to me,  and — instead of resenting her dumping me — I came to feel a bit sorry for her.  Whatever had provoked her behavior was a mystery to me, but she was above all a friend — I was unwilling to condemn her for it.

I am still not entirely certain what her rejection was all about, but in the intervening decades I’ve come to know a great deal more about the likely long term effects of childhood sexual abuse.  Although I will never really know, it seems plausible to me now that the abuse of her lay behind her behavior towards me.  One thing I do know:  The victims of child abuse do not merely include the children themselves, but everyone who will ever love those children at any point in their lives — from childhood through old age — so long as any fallout from the abuse still remains.

It’s been decades since I last saw Diane, and I imagine, having known her, that she has worked out over time all or almost all of the problems the abuse of her caused.  She seems to have had a genius for that.  But I cannot imagine she’s paid anything but a heavy price, no matter how successful she’s been in the end.

Late Night Thoughts: Richard Feynman, Flirting, Contrary People, Big Ideas, and More

(About a 13 minute read)

To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

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Some years ago, if I heard a pounding on my door around 11:30 on a full moon night, I could reliably guess it was Suzanne come by to demand that we go for a midnight hike in the mountains.   I always went for — after all — how often do you get to risk becoming a mountain lion’s next meal?  Besides, the mountains are magic at night.

Suzanne was, and still is, highly intelligent, creative, beautiful, and resilient.  At the time we were taking midnight hikes, however, she was also largely dysfunctional due to an untreated bipolar disorder.  That kept me from developing a genuine emotional intimacy with her, for it’s difficult to feel genuinely intimate with someone who — for whatever reason — is wrapped up in themselves.  Nevertheless, we did pretty good as casual friends.

One crisp night, we set out for a trail head, but when we got there, a noisy group of about seven or eight people were setting off down the trail, so we decided to drive on.  That eventually landed us on a dirt road high up in the mountains.  Since it was about two or three in the morning, and no one was likely to be traveling that narrow road but us, we parked the car in the middle of the road, put the top down, and threw a blanket over us in order to stargaze.

The moon soon enough went down behind the mountains.  The sky blazed with what seemed like five thousand stars, and Suzanne and I fell into silence.  After 45 minutes or an hour, Suzanne spoke.  “Why do I have to be in love with Jeff?”

“I don’t know.  Have you figured that out?”

“Not yet.  I just don’t understand why I get along with you better than I get along him, but I’m in love with him.”  After a moment, she went on,  “I love you too, of course; just not in the same way.”

Jeff was Suzanne’s boyfriend.  Like Suzanne, he was highly intelligent.  He was also abusive.  Whenever we were together, Suzanne would sooner or later start talking about him.   Usually, she spoke of his most recent outrages.

I knew, by that time in my life, that criticizing someone’s partner — even someone’s abusive partner — would most likely achieve nothing more than cause them to rally to the defense of their partner, so I carefully avoided giving Suzanne any hint of how profoundly I loathed Jeff for his abuse of her.   “That does seem strange”, I said as evenly as I could, “I mean that you get along with me better than him.”

“I do love him.”  She turned to look at me.

“Is he good for you?” I replied, looking at her and trying my hardest not to make my question sound like a challenge.  I thought that, if only she would ask that question, sincerely ask that question….

“But I love him!”  She protested.  “That’s got to count for something, right?”  She’d done exactly what I feared: Taken my question for a challenge, rather than genuinely think about whether he was any good for her.

Suzanne was twenty years younger than me.  She had yet to learn the difference between genuinely loving someone and merely being emotionally dependent on them.   Nor was there anyway I could have explained those things to her that night.  Although she never would have expressed it this way,  on some level, Suzanne believed the world was fair and just, and that Jeff had to sooner or later come around if for no other reason than she loved him so much.

In time, Suzanne came to her senses and dumped Jeff.

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Today, May 11, is the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth.  He was born 1918 and died 1988.  Probably, I think, not only one of the greatest physicists of the 20th Century, but also one of wisest people of that century.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.  — Feynman

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I think Sarah was fifteen when I met her.  She and I were both regular customers at the coffee shop and we often enough sat together at the sidewalk tables.  Sarah was one of a small handful of girls who would keep me company even when I was not sitting with any handsome boys their own age.  She also struck me as generally cheerful, optimistic, and sensible.  The sort of level-headed, but occasionally mischievous, young person who gives you hope for the future.

One sunny morning,  about a year after Sarah and I first met,  I was sitting by myself when I happened to glance down the street towards the local high school.  About two blocks away, a woman was walking towards the shop, and though I couldn’t make out her face at that distance, there was something in the way she walked that made me recognize it was Sarah.  I think it might also have been the style of skirt she wore, for Sarah favored long, flowing skirts with a certain kind of print — almost paisley.

As I had guessed, it indeed turned out to be her.

When she arrived, she came straight to my table, and we were soon discussing her jewelry for no other reason than to pass the time of day.   “I have the worse luck, Paul.  Every piece I own has lost its partner.  This ring — see the naked man?   This silver ring had a naked woman that went with it.  That way you could divide the ring into two pieces, and give one piece to your lover.   But I lost the woman.  An ex of mine wouldn’t give it back when we broke up.”

“And you see the man in the moon in my earring? I used to have another earring just like it, but I somewhere lost it.”  She grinned.  “Now I have the moon in one ear, and a dragon in the other.”  She turned her head one way and then the other to show me.

We went on like that for an hour or two it seemed: Simply enjoying the sunny, but cool weather.  Eventually, she had to go back to school, for though her high school had an open campus policy, she was of course expected to attend classes if they were not study halls.

A few weeks later, Sarah and I were again at the coffee shop together.  At some point in our conversation, she decided to draw a dragon for me.  She explained as she was drawing it, that she had practiced and practiced drawing the dragon until she could almost draw it blindfolded.

“Ah! Well executed!  I know you like dragons.”  I remembered her earring.

“Oh yes!  Did I tell you about my dragon lamp?  I have a lamp that a candle fits inside.  When you burn the candle, it casts dragon shadows on the walls.  I love it! I use it as a night light.”

It all came together for me one evening a few months after that.  Sarah and I were once again at the coffee shop, but this time it was towards dusk.  Another man had joined us  — a guy about my age, which was twenty-five or so years older than Sarah.   He and Sarah were flirting with each other, which rather more bored me than anything else.  I became absorbed in watching the sunset.

Presently, the man left to go home, or go to his job, I don’t quite recall which now.  Sarah soon turned to me, “I love flirting with older men”, she said.  “I know I won’t let it go anywhere.  The age difference makes that impossible.  But you can learn so much!  Should I be ashamed of myself, Paul?”

I don’t remember now exactly what I said to her, but she responded by almost pouting — a very unusual expression for her — and then playfully suggesting that I was a public killjoy for refusing to flirt with people, especially with her.  That so surprised me that I felt I needed to make amends!  Hence, within a few days, I composed a simple poem just for Sarah.

She’s a woman in the grace of sixteen summers
With skirts flowing in the morning sun
And she speaks of the silver man ringed naked
A dancer who dances alone
For her jewels have all lost their partners
But the moon still laughs in one ear
And she sleeps in the shadow of dragons
With a heart uncorrupted by fear

◊◊◊

Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

Some “religious” people are just contrary.  They profess to be Hindus or Christians, Muslims or Jews, Buddhists or Taoists, but their real religion is simply to find fault with other people.

God, enlightenment, the Tao are to them little more than concepts that they imagine give them ultimate permission to condemn folks, to dehumanize them.  “I speak for God”, they imply.  “I speak for the Tao.”  Such strange people: Always hiding behind some pillar like “God”, peeking out only to snarl!

But such people are not confined to religions.

No, you find them in the lunatic fringes of every political and social movement, every ideology — including the better ones.  What sort of person makes it their life to condemn others?  What sort of person lives for it?

It is part of the comedy of our species that we often give them the time of day.

◊◊◊

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

To me, the ultimate goal in life is neither meaning nor happiness, but to be as true to yourself as you can be in a socially and environmentally responsible way.   The way I see it, if you shoot for that, then you’ll find what meaning and happiness there is for you in life, like icing on the cake.  But I don’t see how living falsely can bring about either meaning or happiness.  Of course, all I really know is that it works for me.

◊◊◊

I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.   ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

Top 40 Lovers

I listen to the radio play those old two songs:
“How I love him more than life itself” and “How she did me wrong”.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple lover
If the goal’s a cosmic truth.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple friend
If we’re lawyers in the end.

◊◊◊

Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

◊◊◊

I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

“Hullo?”

“Don, this is Paul.  We’re rich!”

“We’re what?”

“Rich, Don, we’re richer than our wildest dreams!”

“Are you kidding me?  What happened?  Did you win the lottery?”

“Lottery?  You can’t depend on lotteries, Don.  This is so much better than a lottery.  This is Big!  Huge!  I’ve had an idea, Don.  An idea!”

“Paul, I have always believed you are capable of having good ideas.  Which is why I am still patiently waiting after all these years for you to actually have one.  But if this is like that last ‘good idea’…”.

“Don’t worry, Don, this one can’t miss.  It’s huge!  What is the number one complaint people have about foods, Don?  The number one complaint?”

“Paul, where is this leading?”

“Don, I’ve been researching this, and nine times out of ten, when people complain about food, it’s because they don’t like the taste.  It’s a scientific fact, Don.  Nine times out of ten!”

“So what?”

“Six words, Don, six words:  Spray-cans filled with liquid nitrogen!  Zap that awful taste right out of your mouth!  Instantly!  Never worry about a bad tasting meal again!

“Don we are going to get rich here!  We are going to get so rich!  I’ve already called some architects, asked for designs on our office building.  Are you excited, Don?

“Don?  Damnit, Don!  You’re a going to have to get a new phone.  Yours keeps dying on me!”

Two More Selections from the World’s Most Abominable Romance Novels

(About a two minute read)

Here are two more excruciating passages from the world’s most abominable (unpublished) romance novels:

From Kitchen of Lusts:

Robert could not sleep. Outside, the violent thunderstorm broke the hour into moments, and the moments into seconds. Each second held an eternity in itself. And each eternity seemed to chide him with his own ultimate meaninglessness. Robert stirred once again in his sheets.

“I am nothing to Vanessa. Beautiful, kind Vanessa”, he thought despairingly for perhaps the hundredth time that night, for perhaps the thousandth time that entire day. “And there seems not a thing I can do about it.”

But he knew, or he sensed, that down that lane lay only the emotional oblivion of hopelessness. “I must not allow myself to feel hopeless. There must be something to give me hope. If only I could discover it!”

Yet, all that came to mind was the careless joy he’d felt earlier that sunlit afternoon when seeing Vanessa’s breasts bouncing in her white, lightly woven, cotton blouse as she ran across the flower strewn meadow to be first to ravage and engorge the delicious foods spread out on the park table at the church picnic they’d attended.

Suddenly, an idea came to him, an idea perhaps midwifed by the violence of the thunder outside, “She loves food! Adores food! Why have I not seen it before! She’s a pig for food,and will do anything to have her way with it. It’s her religion! So I shall…I shall resolve to become a master chef. She must notice me then!”

“And to seal matters”, he further reflected, “I shall appeal to her religious nature, and become a Minister of the Deity, too.” With that, Robert resolutely set his feet upon the awful path that would eventually bring the future lovers to their terrifying fates. And yet, not before the two had learned to hump like rabbits…

From Ravaged is the Night:

Zounds!”, Danielle said. She liked very much to say, “zounds”. She felt using an archaic word now and then might signal to men that she had a few functional brain cells, for men tended strongly to merely focus on her breasts.

“Zounds!”, she repeated, just to make sure Clemence had noticed the word. But poor Clemence’s face and ears were deeply buried in her cleavage, and Danielle wasn’t sure he could hear much of anything.

She herself could certainly hear something! She could hear his sobs; sobs that had started just moments after he had suddenly, and without any warning at all, plunged his head into her cleavage. That was about a quarter hour ago, Danielle figured, and it might be getting time for her to ask him what was the matter.

Still, she hesitated. The two had been seeing each other for a few weeks now, and Danielle had come to recognize Clemence’s gentle, but troubled soul.  In fact, it was his tender, sensitive nature that had first attracted her to him.  “Maybe he just needs a bit more time alone in my cleavage”, she thought compassionately, “We all need to retreat from the world, now and then.”

It disturbed her, though, that he had plunged in without any explanation at all. She wished she could do more to help him, but she had no idea what the problem might be.

To make matters more difficult, both she and Clemence were only sixteen and both of them frequently struggled when trying to express their newly discovered, but extremely powerful — and almost entirely unchecked — feelings. “He might not be able to tell me, even if he wanted to.”, she thought.

She bit her lower lip. She felt like crying herself now. Crying simply because Clemence was crying. “He suffers! My love, he suffers!” Tears began to well in her tender eyes.

But at that moment Clemence raised his head. At last! She felt relief wash over her. “What’s wrong, my love?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”, Clemence said in a voice that was still strung out by powerful emotions. “It was your socks. Your socks. I just then noticed them, and I’ve never been so happy in my life! Dearest, you must love me! You’ve chosen to wear my favorite color!”


See also Selected Passages from the World’s Worst Romance Novels.