November 15, 2008

Weekend birthday poetry fix

This man is celebrating El Cabrero's 50th.

Today marks my 50th year on the planet. I could think of no better poem for the occasion than "Nature," Longfellow's meditation on aging. Not all my playthings have been taken away yet, but the writing is on the wall.

AS a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.


November 14, 2008

This and that

According to Buddhist teachings, all things are impermanent (anicca) and insubstantial (anata) and come into being or pass away according to conditions.

The impermanence thing is probably easier to see for any thoughtful observer (although it's also easy to forget). The insubstantial thing may seem a little strange at first. The Buddha taught that all things--including us--are without self, i.e. that they are dependent on conditions and come into being and pass away as conditions change.

As the Buddha was reported to have said,

If this is, that comes to be;
From the arising of this, that arises;
If this is not, that does not come to be;
From the stopping of this, that is stopped.

That can be a good thing to keep in mind when confronted with problems or even with a sudden turn of good fortune. Whatever it is, it won't last forever and only exists now due to an temporary constellation of factors.

It can also be a useful insight to those interested in either changing things that need to be changed or preserving things that need to be preserved. What is possible at any given times depends on external conditions and how we respond to them. And the conditions change from moment to moment.

DEPRESSION? Maybe not (but maybe).

SPEAKING OF DEPRESSION, lots of Americans are dealing with their own.

SPEAKING OF BOTH KINDS OF DEPRESSION, here's one that brings up some old school sociology.


November 13, 2008

Panta rei

There were two poles in ancient Greek philosophy before Socrates. One of these, represented by Parmenides and Zeno, taught that the ultimate reality or the One, was eternal and changeless. Presumably, this meant that the world of the senses was an illusion.

El Cabrero has always been a fan of their philosophical foe Heraclitus, who basically taught that change was the only permanent reality. The title of this post is from a saying of his to the effect that all things change and flow. Here's a mix from him:

Everything flows and nothing abides;. Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.

Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool; the moist dries, the parched becomes moist.

It is in changing that things find repose.

He was also famous for saying that "war is the father of all things." By that he didn't mean literal war, although that was a fact of life then and now. Instead, he meant that life and the universe itself consist of constant strife and conflict, with forces endlessly bouncing off each other. This constant conflict made all things possible:

Homer was wrong in saying, "Would that strife might perish from amongst gods and men." For if that were to occur, then all things would cease to exist.

Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.

Change and discord leading to harmony... I'll take some of that. While it lasts.

BACK HOME BUT HOMELESS. Many returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are homeless.

RELIGION AND NICENESS may or may not go together.

ANOTHER DAY OLDER AND DEEPER IN DEBT. College loans are a heavy burden for many young Americans.



November 12, 2008

Being there

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that one of the wisest single sentences of philosophy I have ever found came from the ancient Stoic Epictetus. It simply said,

Some things are in our control and others not.

When sufficiently unpacked, I believe that little nugget has profound personal and political (in the broad sense) implications. Think how much stress and anxiety we suffer--with all the attendant health implications--by obsessing about things not in our control.

Jesus, who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, made the same point in the Sermon on the Mount:

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

One of the saddest consequences of doing this is that while we're absorbed in worrying about things we can't effect we're probably missing out on a whole bunch of things we really can. This is true at a social as well as individual level.

Being focused on something we don't immediately control, even if it's a laudable goal, takes us away from where we are here and now, where we might actually be able to seize opportunities and avoid threats.

As the saying goes, you must be present to win.

ENERGY will be one of the biggest challenges for the foreseeable future. Here's a look at the problems and the options.

CORNOGRAPHY. It's what's for dinner.

CLIMATE CHANGE. Here's an item from Time about what the public doesn't yet realize about it.

MINE SAFETY. Here's the latest on the Aracoma mine fire case.

OH THE WATER. Undersea life is richer and stranger than many scientists imagined. Here's hoping it lasts.


November 11, 2008

Philosophy in one sentence

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

El Cabrero has been pondering the role of luck and chance in human affairs lately. This is an interesting time to do it, since the goddess Fortuna has been cranking her wheel with unusual velocity these days. Some go up and some go down.

From ancient times, people have grappled with how to live in a world where unpredictable (for us at the time anyway) things can happen at any time. Many have turned to different kinds of divination for clues. Others chalk it off to the inscrutable providence of God, whose ways are not our ways nor are his thoughts our thoughts, to paraphrase Isaiah.

Another way people have dealt with uncertainty is through philosophy. Of the many schools of ancient thought, I've always had a soft spot for the Stoics, a Hellenistic vision of the world that became popular in imperial Rome. Stoicism was all about living a rational life in accordance with the nature of things and accepting external events as they come.

Interestingly, two of its greatest exponents were at opposite extremes of the social scale. Epictetus (c. 55-135) was a slave, while Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was one of the last truly great Roman emperors.

Stoicism was as much a kind of self-help or ancient cognitive therapy as it was an intellectual tradition. It has some features in common with other wisdom traditions such as Buddhism or Taoism.

If I had to come up with one of the most useful single sentences I've encountered in studying philosophy, it would probably be one from the Enchiridion of Epictetus. It simply says,

Some things are in our control and others not.

GOING GREEN. More retail businesses are going green.

THINK BIG. Here's economist Jeffrey Sachs with suggestions for the next administration.

ONE TO WATCH. The lawsuit filed by widows of Massey Energy's Aracoma mine fire has begun.


More than half of all West Virginia soldiers who live in the state's most rural counties and recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, according to a recent analysis of data from a survey of the state's war veterans.

About 56 percent of returning soldiers from West Virginia's rural counties suffer from mental health problems compared to 32 percent who live in urban areas, and 34 percent residing at out-of-state military bases.

TUG OF WAR. A new theory of mental disorders suggests that competition between parental genes may be a contributing factor.

I WAS NOT AWARE OF THAT. Did you know that snakebites kill 20,000 people a year in the developing world?


November 10, 2008

Talking sense

It's hard to keep your head above water these days.

It looks like another economic stimulus package is on the horizon, which is a good thing, especially if we get it right. There has been much debate about what the next stimulus package should contain.

Along with lots of other folks, I've argued many times here and elsewhere that a good stimulus package should be targeted at those who need help the most and at improving public investments in infrastructure. Those ideas are kind of mainstream now.

Here's what Business Week has to say:

Now that the banks have had a bailout, talk in Washington is turning to a broader rescue plan for the economy. Congress has been studying a possible $250 billion to $300 billion fiscal stimulus package—everything from new tax breaks to new-school construction. But success will depend on which stimuli are chosen, says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Tax rebates such as those sent out under the 2008 Economic Stimulus Act are pretty effective in a short (six-month) recession, he says, with each dollar spent on the tax break yielding a $1.26 boost to GDP (chart).

But his analysis shows that extending unemployment benefits to 39 weeks, from 26, would yield a greater return, as would raising food stamp payments. And if the downturn lasts 12 months, as Zandi predicts, infrastructure projects—which can take months or longer to kick in—could also render a big payoff. What sorts of stimuli wouldn’t ripple through the economy so efficiently? The cost of corporate tax cuts, says Zandi, far exceeds the economic rewards.

According to Zandi, one dollar of government spending invested in increased food stamp payments would lead to a boost of $1.73 in GDP. Extending unemployment would yield $1.64 per dollar, while infrastructure spending would increase GDP by $1.59 per dollar invested. By contrast, corporate tax cuts would only increase GDP by .30 per federal dollar.

Damn...maybe the folks at Business Week have gone pinko too. And they're not the only ones.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, unemployment is at a 14 year high. And here's Paul Krugman talking New Deal.

VOTE WITH YOUR FORK. Here's an interview with Michael Pollan on the politics of food.

TOLERANCE can spread as easily as prejudice, according to recent psychological research.

URGENT SEA SNAKE UPDATE. They drink fresh water.

WASN'T THERE A MOVIE ABOUT THIS? Some scientists are hoping to clone extinct species.