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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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“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!”

Late Night Thoughts: Friday, March 17, 2017

(About an 8 minute read)

I turned 60 a couple months ago. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about getting older has been that I don’t worry as much about my mistakes as I used to when I was younger.

I still make as many — or even more — mistakes as I ever did, but I just don’t worry about them as much. Instead, I let the victims of my mistakes do the worrying, for part of my getting older has been my learning how to properly delegate responsibility.

I recently got involved in a discussion of nudity.  Someone said that nudity was against Christian principles for women.  That is, women should be modest in their apparel.

Then someone else pointed out there wasn’t much that was more modest than nudity.  “Hard to put on airs when you ain’t got nothing else on.”

Do you suppose American women, by and large, have similar handwriting?

At least, it’s my impression that a woman’s handwriting usually resembles other women’s handwriting to a greater degree than a man’s handwriting is apt to resemble other men’s handwriting.  Put differently, it seems more difficult to tell women apart than it seems it is to tell men apart.

If that is indeed the case, then why is it the case?

And if it is true of American women, is it true of women elsewhere?

I’ve heard people say we can never know for certain what it feels like to be someone else.  But is that really true? Is it never possible to know for certain what it feels like to be someone else?

Yesterday, I was with my friend Don for a late lunch. Don and I go back a long ways and we know each other pretty well.

At one point during our lunch, he said something that was so profound it went completely over my head and I couldn’t even begin to fathom what he meant.  I felt lost and stupid.

Then I suddenly realized: “Surely, this is what it feels like to be a politician!”

Who am I?

If you ask most of us who we are, we will answer you by naming one or another relationship. We are, for instance, a husband.  Or a golfer.  Or a businessman.  But to say we are a husband, or a golfer, or a businessman, is each case to define our self in terms of the relationship we have to something.

In contrast, we tend not to define our self in terms of what is happening with us at any given moment.  I do not think of myself as someone whose shoulder is itching. Or as someone who happens to be looking at a computer monitor.  Or as someone who is wishing it was dawn.  All of those are transient things — too transient for me to think of them as “me”.

Yet, being a husband, a golfer, or a businessman are also transient.  That is, if you really think about it, you are not simply “a husband”.  You are only sometimes a husband.  Just as your shoulder only sometimes itches.  And it is only a convention of thought that you imagine yourself to always — or continuously — be a husband.

The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968, p. 229.

While it might be true Nietzsche never wrote what Campbell attributes to him, Campbell’s “paraphrase” of Nietzsche’s views ranks as a sharp insight in itself.

We humans sometimes wish to construct systems of thought — worldviews — that are consistent throughout and encompass everything.  Yet, such “views” are simply beyond us, and might even be logically impossible.

So, perhaps the best we can do is to become Cosmic Dancers.  That is, folks who are capable of looking at things from many angles and perspectives, who are capable of dancing between views, but who do not settle dogmatically on any one point of view.

The mane is thought to keep the neck warm, and possibly to help water run off the neck if the animal cannot obtain shelter from the rain. It also provides some fly protection to the front of the horse, although the tail is usually the first defense against flies.

Wikipedia

I’m not buying it.  I find it implausible that manes would evolve because horses with manes had warmer necks, and that their warmer necks proved to be significant to their reproductive success.  There must be some other reason manes evolved.

But what would that be?

I was thinking sexual selection.  That is, I was thinking manes are like the male peacock’s tail.  It provides no survival advantage, but the female peacock’s like it. So the females pick the males with the best tails to mate with.  That’s what I was thinking.

But then I remembered that both male and female horses have manes. So now I’m thinking sexual selection probably isn’t the reason horses evolved manes.

But what is the reason?

For the sake of discussion, let us assume there’s an able god.  By “able”, I mean that god is capable of doing anything that does not violate the rules of logic.  For instance, it can create the universe, but it cannot create a square circle because a square circle is logically impossible.

Next, let us assume that god unconditionally loves all of creation, including each one of us.

Is that scenario logically possible?

Well, I think it is possible. I would not account it very probable. It’s not something I’d bank on.  But possible?  Yes.

Now, let us assume the same two conditions — an able god and that god’s unconditional love — plus a third condition.

The third condition is there exists a hell that is a part of creation and to which people are sent after their death if they disobey the god.

Is the new scenario logically possible?

I do not think so.  Instead,. I think the new scenario involves a logical contradiction and consequently cannot exist.  That is, it cannot be real.  But what is that contradiction?

Well, how can you logically have an able god that loves you unconditionally and also causes you to go to hell if you disobey that god?

So far as I can see, you cannot.  An unconditionally loving god would neither impose a condition upon it’s love ( i.e. if you do not obey me, I will not love you) nor would an unconditionally loving god, if it were able to prevent it, allow it’s beloved to come to harm (i.e. if you do not obey me, I will cause or allow you to go to hell).

But what do you think?  Is it an amusing logic puzzle?  Or have I just had too much caffeine again?

Four Quotes From Voltaire:

Les habiles tyrans ne sont jamais punis.

— Clever tyrants are never punished.

C’est une des superstitions de l’esprit humain d’avoir imaginé que la virginité pouvait être une vertu.

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.

Nous cherchons tous le bonheur, mais sans savoir où, comme les ivrognes qui cherchent leur maison, sachant confusément qu’ils en ont une.

We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.

Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

(Source)

A while back, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed — just beyond the window — a girl of about 14 or 16 dressed in a highly sexualized manner.  That is, her clothing was flamboyantly sexual even for an adolescent.  Moverover, she was flirting with a boy, who appeared a bit older than her, and she very soon straddled his lap in order to grind against him.  I couldn’t recall when I had last seen in public such an overt display of sexuality — outside of an erotic dance club.

Now, the girl was not physically attractive by American conventions. For one thing, she was much too fat to be fashionable.  For another thing, she had a rather plain face thickly coated with cosmetics.  And, though her clothing was notable for being revealing, it did not seem that she had put much thought into the combination she’d chosen.

So, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether the poor girl might be suffering from low self-esteem.  That is, it seemed possible that she thought of herself as not having much to offer the boys besides sex.

I was thinking along those sad lines when I heard a male voice at the table behind me say, “God! Look at that slut!”

Of course, I don’t know whether he was talking about the girl, or about someone else.  I didn’t ask.  Yet, I assumed he was indeed talking about the girl — and that made me feel old.  Old and tired.

You see, the one attractive thing I had noticed about the girl in the few minutes I’d been watching her was that she seemed so full of life.  Even if her dress and mannerisms were motivated by low self-esteem — and I didn’t know that for certain — she appeared at the moment happy.  She was, if only for a while, the queen of her universe.  It wearied me to think anyone would simply dismiss her as a slut.

Pema Chödrön on “Negative” Feelings

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”

Pema Chödrön

Jiddu Krishnamurti on Impermance

We are trying to find out if there is, or is not, a permanent state, not what we would like, but the actual fact, the truth of the matter. Everything about us, within as well as without — our relationships, our thoughts, our feelings — is impermanent, in a constant state of flux. Being aware of this, the mind craves permanency, a perpetual state of peace, of love, of goodness, a security that neither time nor events can destroy; therefore it creates the soul, the Atman, and the visions of a permanent paradise. But this permanency is born of impermanency, and so it has within it the seeds of the impermanent. There is only one fact: impermanence.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Edward Abby on the Surface of Things

I am pleased enough with the surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on the rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there? What else do we need?

Edward Abby

America’s Future?

The economic crisis in advanced economies is accelerating the timeline in which big emerging nations like China rule the global economy. Instead of the market focusing on American shopping habits, they’ll be focused on consumers in Shanghai and Mumbai. Unless the US can recover the 8.5 million jobs it lost in the recession, and unless incomes begin rising, the US will be knocked off its pedestal within a generation.

In the US, the biggest problem is Washington. It is becoming clear that they work for maybe a hundred billionaires and five industry groups and that’s about it.

China still has a long way to go before it catches up with the US, and China is a command and control economy. China says that its style of economics is not for export, and other emerging nations, like Brazil, have not tried to emulate it. They don’t have to. Nor does India, or Thailand or Indonesia, for that matter. Their populations are getting richer, ours are getting poorer, with average incomes declining in 2009 and 2010, according to the US Census Bureau. Their corporations are investing at home and creating jobs; ours are either hamstrung from doing so, demanding more tax breaks from a revenue strapped government, or investing where the growth really is.

And where is it? Far and away from the US, new cities are being built, new industries, new entertainment centers rivaling Hollywood; new brands and a new middle class. In some of these countries, like Brazil, disparity between rich and poor is shrinking, not widening. It’s not Nirvana. It’s better. It’s worse. But it’s growing, and it’s hiring, and it is peaceful.

From “The Post-Western World“, posted in Forbes, by Kenneth Rapoza.

In making his case that the American reign is nearing its end, Rapoza quotes in his Forbes post from Noam Chompsky.

“It is a common theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay,” Giacomo Chiozza writes in the current Political Science Quarterly.

The theme is indeed widely believed. And with some reason, though a number of qualifications are in order. To start with, the decline has proceeded since the high point of U.S. power after World War II, and the remarkable triumphalism of the post-Gulf War `90s was mostly self-delusion.

Another common theme, at least among those who are not willfully blind, is that American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted. The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, may have no analogue in the annals of parliamentary democracy.

The spectacle is even coming to frighten the sponsors of the charade. Corporate power is now concerned that the extremists they helped put in office may in fact bring down the edifice on which their own wealth and privilege relies, the powerful nanny state that caters to their interests.

From “America in Decline“, posted in Nation of Change, by Noam Chomsky.

It’s a strange day when thinkers such as Rapoza and Chomsky, who are on either ends of the ideological spectrum, agree about America’s prospects over the next 10 or 20 years.

Both articles are worth reading in their entirety.