Archive for November, 2010

time for a break

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Nov 29, 2010

I just finished Tony Blair’s new book, A Journey, My Political Life. Blair was the British Prime Minister during the Clinton and Bush years. At one point early in the book he comments, “Most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh or a harrumph, or a raising of the eyebrows, before they go back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n roll.”

These weekly Hawkhill News blogs have been pretty heavy on science, history and politics. It’s time for a break.

Like:

“If there is any thinking to be done in this forest, you and I must do it. We have brains, the others have fluff.” Winnie-the-Pooh.

“If d u n doesn’t spell done, what the hell does it spell?” Very rich but spelling-challenged miner George Hearst, grandfather of publisher William Randolph Hearst.

“I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” Mark Twain.

“I used to eat a lot of natural foods until I learned that most people die of natural causes.” Anonymous.

And then there are some new old folks jokes recently emailed to me by younger friends. Here is one I liked.

This old retired couple went to the doctor together for a check-up. The doctor gave both a thorough examination and pronounced them in excellent physical condition for their age. “You both have a bit of short-term memory problem, but nothing serious. I suggest you write things down more often.” Happy and satisfied, they went home, had their supper and settled down to watch television. After a short time the wife asked her husband to go to the kitchen and get her some ice cream for dessert. He said, “sure.” She said “you better write it down like the doctor said.” “I don’t have to write that down,” he answered. “I’ll remember.” “But I want some whipped cream on top,” she said. “Better write it down.” “I won’t forget” he answered again, a bit annoyed. “But I also want a cherry on top. Now you better write it all down.” Feeling insulted now he snapped back, “Don’t worry. I can remember all that for heaven’s sake.”

After what seemed like an awfully long time in the kitchen, he came back into the living room and handed her some bacon and eggs. She took one look and said “where’s my toast?”

If you prefer a more philosophic joke, here are a couple from a book a friend turned me onto Plato and Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes by two philosophy professors often featured on NPR, Daniel M. Klein and Thomas Cathcart.

The philosophy department at a major university was having their monthly meeting when an angel showed up and said to the Head of the Department: “You have three choices. You can have beauty, wisdom or ten million dollars. Choose.” Being a dedicated philosopher he chose wisdom. Thunder and lightning followed and he got his wish. His colleagues, though, noticed that he remained sitting at the conference table for a long time with his head in his hands. Finally one of them tapped him on the shoulder and said “George, what’s the matter?” He looked up blearily and said, “I should’ve taken the money.”

To tell you the truth I’m not exactly sure what philosophic principle that was meant to illustrate. The next one is even more obscure, but funny anyway.

It seems Thompson was getting old. He was out of shape, had a pot belly and couldn’t go up the stairs without wheezing. Four months before his 60th birthday he decided to do something about it. He went on a diet, started jogging and swimming, and went to the gym every day. It paid off. He lost 30 lbs and he was in great condition by the time his 60th birthday arrived. He decided then to get himself a new mod haircut to celebrate. As he was coming out of the barbershop he stepped into the street and was hit by a passing bus. As he lay on the ground dying, he looked up to heaven and cried, “God, how could you do this to me!”

From out of the clouds came a voice, “Gee Thompson, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you.”

And then there are favorite cartoons.

Like the one from a long ago New Yorker that has a beaver talking to a fox as they both look up to the newly built Hoover Dam. “Well, I didn’t actually build it,” says the beaver, “but it was based on an idea of mine.”

Three from Sydney Harris:

A cave man father is reminding his family, “We all better get to bed early tonight. Tomorrow is the dawn of history.”

A landscape is littered with ancient stone columns. One sign at the far left with an arrow pointing left says “Ruins.” At the far right an identical looking sign with an arrow pointing right says “Complete Wrecks.”

The bearded professor is looking at a tangle of arcane equations on his blackboard when a beautiful maiden behind him says, “I’m your guardian angel and I hate to tell you this Stanley, but I’m afraid you have been barking up the wrong tree for 30 years.”

Two from Gary Larsen:

This alligator is on the witness stand. “Of course I did it in cold blood, you idiot, I’m a reptile.”

A polar bear is talking to his friend next to a caved-in igloo. “I just love them, crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy inside.”

Finally some good insults.

A Member of Parliament to Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” “That depends, Sir,” said Disraeli, “whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

The exchange between Churchill and Lady Astor: She said, “If you were my husband I’d give you poison.” He said “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

“I’ve never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” Clarence Darrow.

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” Groucho Marx.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill

P.S. One more: a comedian from my hometown in Ohio, Jonathan Winters, tells a true story. On a trip around the world he viewed a Temple to Athena in Greece. “A woman asked what I thought of it, and I said I was terribly disappointed.” “Why?” “Everything is broken.” “But it goes back five centuries before Christ!” “I know, but it should have been fixed by now.”

P.P.S. Many of our best-selling programs are now on Amazon.com. When you get to Amazon enter either Hawkhill or Bill Stonebarger in the search box and you can access many of our programs and buy them at much reduced prices.

In my trip around the world, including Greece, I captured video that you can see in programs like Science and Democracy, The Soul of Science, and Democracy in the Ancient World. Give them a try. They would even make good Christmas presents for readers with high school or college age children. Or for yourself.

“voices”

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Nov. 22, 2010

What goes on in the minds of suicide bombers? What made German SS guards send Jewish families to the gas ovens and then spend a loving evening reading to their children? What is happening when Amazonian tribes raid a nearby village, rape the women, kill the men and then eat them? All of these things happen with no remorse.

A remarkable and controversial book by the late Julian Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, has a remarkable and controversial explanation for questions like this. The people heard “voices” inside their brains that told them what to do and absolved them of any responsibility.

According to the author people before the age of literacy were not conscious. The human brain then (and now) is bicameral, that is, it has a left and a right hemisphere. In pre-literate times the brain did not work in quite the same way it does now.

Three or four thousand years ago (before reading and writing were invented) humans, like other animals, could sense, perceive, think, solve problems and react to challenging situations, but they were not conscious of themselves as actors. They did not distinguish between I and me. They used language, as other animals do, but they did not use abstract, metaphorical language. They did not introspect. They did not have a conscience.

When confronted with a unique choice that we would call “moral,” they listened to voices in their head that they interpreted as coming from the gods (or other authority figures) that told them what to do. Jaynes hypothesizes that these voices were literal sounds that one side of the brain, the right, was sending to the other side, the left. Schizophrenics today have similar experiences.

When Achilles in Homer’s classic poem of the Trojan War, hears the gods tell him to kill Hector, he has no choice. He kills Hector. When Abraham in the Old Testament hears God’s voice telling him to sacrifice his beloved son, he goes to the mountain top and raises his knife to do so. (In Abraham’s case, at the last second, the voice of God comes again to stop him from actually killing his son, and then praises him for listening and obeying.)

In Homer’s Odyssey, on the other hand, (composed after literacy was invented) Odysseus is a modern man who is conscious. He has to decide for himself what to do, as the “voices” in his head are silent now. As a result he is no longer naïve and free from remorse. Like other modern men, he makes mistakes and uses lies and trickery to get out of tight scrapes. So too in the New Testament, Jesus is a modern man and he preaches a different message than Abraham. His message is one of responsibility and individual choice.

In modern times the men who flew the airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may have heard a modern version of the voices. In their case the “voices” were probably not literal audio sensations. They were, however, closely related (maybe great-great-great-grandchildren) to the pre-literate voices heard by Abraham, Achilles and all pre-literate peoples. The voices, in other words, were muffled now, but still sub-consciously powerful after three thousand years of being passed along with our genes and/or our memes.

So too when the SS officers sent the Jews to the gas chambers they did not necessarily hear voices in their brains, but they did “hear” muffled voices from their Fuehrer which they interpreted as coming from an ultimate authority figure whose orders could not be questioned or denied. These voices also relieved them of any responsibility. They were just doing their job.

With the primitive peoples of the Amazon today it may be different. They still live in a pre-literate time and culture, and they may hear, still literally, voices from the gods (or from their chiefs, speaking in lieu of the gods) that they dare not contradict. This too relieves them of responsibility for the murders, rapes and cannibalism that are so common in primitive cultures. (See a fascinating book by anthropologist Carole A. Travis-Henikoff,  Dinner with a Cannibal, for more detail and documentation on life in  primitive cultures yesterday and today.)

Jaynes’ idea is just that, an idea, an hypothesis, but it is receiving some support today from new research in neurology and anthropology. See the web site of Julian Jaynes Society for more details.  Like any hypothesis in science, its virtue depends partly on its usefulness in explaining disparate phenomena. The voices hypothesis works pretty well in providing answers to many puzzling questions. It makes sense of popular mass hysteria at football games, political rallies and rock ’n roll concerts. It also explains the irrational but real appeal that fundamentalist faiths, supernatural and secular, have for so many people today. When large segments of any population are convinced that their religion is not only the best, but the only true religion, terrible things often result.

People who are convinced that Islam is the only true religion are the ones who killed themselves and took 3000 or so others down with them in the 9/11 attacks. Some Muslims believe that the Shiite version of Islam is the only true one. Others believe the Sunni version is the only true one. Iran and Iraq fought a war over this difference just a few decades ago and half-a-million soldiers and civilians died. People who are convinced that the Catholic form of Christianity is the only true form and that the Protestant form is heresy, (and vice versa), were responsible for the deaths of a third of the population in northern Europe during the 30 Years War of the 16th century (as well as much bloody carnage in Ireland and England in the 19th and 20th centuries).

In a similar way, secular religions like Communism and Nazism are responsible for much misery in the world of today. In the case of Communism the toll was over 100 million premature deaths and almost half the world’s population condemned to poverty and serfdom for nearly half a century. Nazism brought on the Holocaust and the Second World War.

The point is not that voices from the prehistoric past are necessarily the only culprit in these crimes, but they may have played an important role.

How can knowledge of the “voices” help us today?

People three or four thousand years ago were our ancient ancestors. We should respect their memory and our debt to them. But also remember that their life was not a bed of roses, and they were neither good environmentalists nor what we would call good people. They cannot be held responsible for the murders, rapes and cannibalism that were and are common in primitive societies. The voices were responsible. At the minimum it should make us cautious about romanticizing primitive tribes, as was done in the popular movie Avatar, as well as in only too many environmental fantasies today.

It should also increase our skepticism about dogmatic beliefs today from any and all quarters, religious or secular. And here I include the recent near-dogmatic allegiance to Radical Environmentalism. Instead we should take to heart the advice Abraham Lincoln gave in his Address to Congress on the Emancipation Proclamation:  “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present… As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew, and we shall save our country.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more insight and discussion on the connections between religion and democracy see our program Religion and Democracy. Among other things it explains in more detail the hypothesis of Julian Jaynes and speculates about its relevance yesterday and today.

Oops!

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

Nov. 15, 2010

“I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.” Thomas J. Watson, IBM Chairman of the Board, 1943.

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Bill Gates, 1982.

“I have seen the future, and it works.” Journalist Lincoln Steffens on his first visit to the Soviet Union, 1919.

“U.S. oil reserves will be exhausted by 1924.” The U.S. Bureau of Mines, 1914.

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, October 16, 1929.

“Stalin is a guardian of the sacred flame,” and his five-year plans will bring a new life to the people of Russia. Walter Duranty, New York Times Bureau Chief in Moscow during the Stalin-caused famines of the 1930s that brought death to 20 million or so.

“The most enlightened dispassionate, dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world.” The left-liberal magazine The Nation, commenting on Duranty’s work for the New York Times.

“The two government sponsored enterprises we are talking about here, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are not in a crisis. We have recently had an accounting problem . . .  I do not think at this point there is a problem with a threat to the Treasury.” Congressman and Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, 2003.

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” Decca Recording Company rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

“No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.” J. Scott Armstrong, Professor at the Wharton School of the Univ. of Pennsylvania and specialist in long-term forecasting.

The list of errant predictions by knowledgeable people is long and amusing. But as Armstrong says, that doesn’t stop people from believing in the next one. Today the predictions of climate change experts are the ones considered most newsworthy. Not often noticed are related predictions from some of these  same “experts” in past decades.

One of the most popular and outspoken of the climate experts was the late Stephen Schneider. (Full disclosure: I have a personal beef with Dr. Schneider. In the 1990s we scheduled an interview with him when he was a chief researcher at NOAA in Colorado. We flew there from Madison with our video crew to meet him at the appointed day and time. When we arrived his secretary told us that even though he was in the office, he was too busy with other tasks and was unavailable for our interview. She admitted he had agreed to the interview and it was on his calendar but she just shrugged-sorry, too bad. The snub did not leave a good taste in my mouth.)

In 1978 Dr. Schneider warned the nation on prime-time TV of a coming ice age. Among other things he suggested we may have to use nuclear energy to melt a few ice caps in the Arctic. A few years later he later he had changed his mind and became a leading advocate of the global warming hypothesis. Whatever the prediction, he confessed that he and his colleagues “had to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of the doubts we have.”  By 1992 Schneider had suppressed any doubts and confidently claimed, “it is journalistically irresponsible to present both sides of the global warming issue as though it were a question of science.” In 2007 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Mind you, I realize that one of the virtues of science is its devotion to truth with a small “t.” That means when new data is not consistent with a given hypothesis, you change your hypothesis. That is also one reason I am a skeptic about current hypotheses of climate change. Like Chairman Watson, Bill Gates, the U.S. Bureau of Mines, Professor Fisher, Ambassador Davies, Barney Frank, and the Decca Recording Company, it ain’t necessarily so because “experts” says it is.

Back in the 60s the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was very popular. One of his most frequent guests was the biologist Paul Ehrlich, who made a splash in 1968 with a best-selling book, The Population Bomb. Here is the first sentence.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

In the 70s and 80s you would have been hard put to find a scientist (or an educated citizen) who did not agree with Ehrlich that overpopulation was the most important problem in the world. In an article in The Progressive he doubled down on his prediction by claiming that “more than 60 million people in the United States will starve to death in the 1970s and 1980s.”

His numbers panned out all right. By the 1980s about 60 million people in the U.S. were struggling with diets.

Along the same line, Ehrlich partnered with the present science advisor to President Obama, the physicist John Holdren, to make up an equation in honor of the first Earth Day. I=PAT. I stood for environmental impact. P stood for population. A for affluence and T for technology. In other words as the population increased, as wealth grew and technology became ever more ubiquitous, the environment suffered. Or, as the bumper sticker headlined in a recent blog claimed, “a growing economy means a shrinking ecosystem.” If you truly care about the environment, the equation seems to say, pay no heed to the present clamor for jobs and economic growth. They would only shrink the ecosystem still more.

Other famous (or infamous) predictions include:

Probably the most renowned economist of the mid-20th century was John Kenneth Galbraith. In popular books like The Affluent Society and The New Industrial Society, Galbraith claimed that American standards of living had gone about as far as they could go, and it was time to devote more resources and wealth to social goods and public investment. He predicted that the children of mid-20th century adults would never be able to afford a house and life style equal to their parents.

As Gregg Easterbrook points out in his 2009 book Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed, “fifty years later, inflation-adjusted per capita income is three times what it was when Galbraith said incomes had peaked; the average 1,100 square-foot American house of the 1952 has become a 2,400 square-foot house; the average one-car family has become a three-car family; by many other measures, living standards are much higher than when Galbraith said they had peaked.”

Some intellectuals never give up though. Just this year scholar Tony Judt in a widely quoted and praised article in the New York Review of Books claims again that “something is profoundly wrong about the way we live today … in contrast to their parents and grandparents, children today in the UK as in the US have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born.”

I won’t live long enough to collect, but I am willing to wager Judt will turn out to be as mistaken as Galbraith was fifty years ago.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. You might want to take a look at an older book, The Good News Is the Bad News is Wrong (Simon & Schuster, 1984) by Ben Wattenberg. I love the quote from Jeanne Kirkpatrick. “Ben Wattenberg’s new book is a compelling reminder that we must learn to bear the truth about our society, no matter how pleasant it may be.”

what do Vladimir Lenin, Osama bin Laden and Al Gore have in common?

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Nov. 8, 2010

Answer: each, in his own way, opposes the way we live in America today.

Lenin (fortunately now deceased) wanted us to live a collective life where the “bourgeoisie” would be “wiped off the face of the earth,” and all the rest of us proletarians would be equal, and happy. Where his ideas were put into action (the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, Cuba today, North Korea today), all turned out to be equally miserable.

Osama bin Laden (unfortunately still at large) and his many disciples, want us to lay down our arms, bow down to Allah and abandon our decadent western values and life styles in favor of chadors, mosques and the stoning of female adulterers. Where his ideas have been put into action, there are epidemics of poverty, piety and violence.

Al Gore and his many disciples also want us to abandon our decadent life styles in favor of small farms, solar panels and recycled goods and services. His ideas have not yet been put into action in any substantial way, so we can’t be sure where they would lead. They imply, though, severe cutbacks in energy and resource use, a reduction in living standards, a restriction of free trade, and a more isolationist foreign policy. In other words, they favor strong movements away from a free-market capitalist economy, moving instead toward a zero-sum economy, where the emphasis is on sharing dwindling resources rather than creating new ones.

Actually, Lenin, bin Laden and Gore, each in his own way, recommend zero-sum solutions to our present problems. Each, in his own way, thinks free-market capitalism with its proliferation of Wal-Marts, McDonald’s and Starbucks, its free-trading with the likes of China and Mexico, its wasteful and energy-rich life styles, is destructive and unsustainable. In Lenin’s case, destructive to the proletariat; in bin Laden’s case, destructive to Allah; and in Gore’s case, destructive to mother Earth.

The results of the election last week should put a crimp in the style of activists for each of these “solutions.” But they probably won’t. Actually, the recommendations of Lenin are not taken that seriously any more, except for a dwindling number of far-left partisans. The recommendations of bin Laden are serious, but not very popular in western democracies. The recommendations of Gore, however, are taken quite seriously in western democracies. In theory, that is. When it comes to action, however, the recent election shows again how weak the commitment to “green lifestyles” really is in the public at large.

In other words when push comes to shove, people (including most environmentalists actually. In fact including Al Gore himself) are much more concerned with jobs and economic growth, than they are with changing life styles to save energy, spread around the wealth, and prevent climate change. If “growing the economy means shrinking the ecosystem,” as true-believer environmentalists claim, the ecosystem is going to get the short end of the stick every time. Even with true-believers (see Al Gore’s new mansion on the California coast). And, all things considered, that’s probably a good thing.

Does that mean the environment is always the loser?

No. I don’t think so.

People are concerned, as they should be, with keeping the air, water and soil clean and healthy. People are concerned, as they should be, with preserving wilderness, preventing species extinctions, improving animal care on farms, homes and research facilities. People are concerned, as they should be, with improving efficiency, doing more with less, being frugal and using common sense (and high-tech) ways to save materials and money. People are interested in finding new ways to harness the sun and the wind, the atom and the ocean, the deep heat of the earth itself, and the resources of the planets and stars to power present and future civilizations.

And people can and will support efforts to achieve all of these things. What they will not, and do not, support are crash programs that promise to achieve a few of these goals at the expense of more important ones. Like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Like forming a “more perfect Union, establishing Justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general Welfare, and securing the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

This to me helps explain the Tea Parties sudden rise to prominence in America today. And, on the whole, all things considered, I think it is probably a good thing.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. If you want more insight into the history of democratic economics and politics try our six-part program, DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY. It does not get into Tea Party theory or tactics, but it does trace the path that has led us to our successful free-market liberal democracy.

P.P.S. On the way is my new book, recently re-titled as: The Road to a Tea Party. Note the distinction: A Tea Party, not THE Tea Party. Subtitle: a fresh look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. I expect to publish it under the new Gilman Street Press imprint sometime this spring.