Monthly Archives: December 2010

As the Year Comes to an End

Posted by Mike

I’m an avid reader of the New York Times. I read it on-line; it’s cheaper and easier. The compelling articles and opinion of the past few days have been editorials, especially the one by Nicholas Kristof regarding the incredible amount of money and materials we pour into our military arsenal,  and the article by Michael Kamber about his friend, the photojournalist Joao Silva: the work Silva has done over the years and his terrible injuries in Afganistan, where he recently lost both of his legs to a land mine. The issue of our military goals and expenses and the human costs are just some of the uncomfortable concerns that should make all of us squirm more than a little as the year is ending.

It would be uplifting if we in this country could look back upon the current and near-to-be-past year with satisfaction at worthwhile accomplishments and forward to the next year with anticipation of further successes in the areas most needed, not only in this country, but even more worldwide: available universal health care and increased focus on eradicating endemic diseases in the third world; increased educational opportunities, especially for those who have been underprivileged or denied opportunities in the past; a reduction in armaments and in warfare worldwide, including, but not necessarily especially, reduction in nuclear weaponry; strengthened efforts to negotiate with those who see us as their enemy, rather than to eliminate them by military force;  focus upon reduction in poverty worldwide; increased concern and action to protect the environment from its ongoing degradation, both on land and in the oceans.

Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate to  the “uplifting” ideal suggested above. The countries of the world – and specifically for us, the United States – in general, but not universally, are in a great deal of trouble, having defaulted in most of the areas discussed above. In general, we have become in the United States insensitive to the needs of the impoverished and underpriviliged both here and worldwide; we arrogantly pursue our “national security” and consumer-product oriented goals: “more for myself and my family and my group and to hell with the others”, and avoid awareness of the needs of the manifold others less fortunate. We are the privileged and the correct thinking ones and the “saved” ones.

God help us – when the reckoning comes!

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.



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More re: The Gingerbread Man

Posted by Mike

Run, run – as fast as you can – You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!

The Gingerbread Man was clearly misguided – immature, impulsive. Was he delusional? Was his behavior antisocial or just oppositional? He doesn’t steal anything – or harm others. It seems that he was only oppositional, and not delusional, but completely lacking in awareness of the likely consequences of his behavior. Also, quite naive to trust the fox, whom most others would have steered clear of. But since the Gingerbread Man seemed to have had no experience prior to jumping out of the oven, we can’t really have expected him to share this insight. the story is clearly a tragedy, presenting the consequences of thoughtless, self-centered, emotion-driven, and excitement motivated behavior. And we are the voyeurs, vicariously enjoying hearing about the exploits of the Lindsey Lohan types, but comfortable in our conservative behavior with predictable outcomes. Let us have a few moments of silent prayer – for the Gingerbread Man – and for Ms Lohan.
The behavior of nations often is reflective of the sort displayed by our Gingerbread Man.

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Cutting for Stone

Posted by Mike

I guess it could be called a coming of age story, but it’s long and hefty enough to be considered a saga, a least of one family’s history, but either way it is a gripping narrative that provides bonuses for the reader that are not normally found in today’s novels. The author, Abraham Verghese, is Ethiopian born of Indian parents, teachers in Addis Ababa. He is currently a professor of medicine at Stanford. Cutting for Stone clearly is derived from the author’s early experiences and family life in Addis Ababa. The story is about the birth, early life and young adulthood of identical twins, Marion and Shiva Stone, born unexpectedly to a Catholic sister from India, serving in a small hospital in the capital city of Ethiopia. The author provides extensive biographical vignettes of virtually all of the foreign workers and natives who work in the hospital, such that the reader becomes intimately familiar with the lives of not only the principals of the narrative but of most of the minor characters.

The bonuses from the novel are several. The reader experiences what life was like for expatriates in a major city in North Africa, not only for Indian doctors and nurses, but for an international group of expats. It reminds me a little of the cultural immersion that I experienced years ago in reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. You feel like you are there, learning about the culture, and also – given the author’s expertise – being immersed into medical problems that present themselves to the clinic: the problems, the sorting out of alternative treatments, and the solutions (when there were solutions). Dr. Verghese is so thorough and detailed at times that the reader is left with the impression that he or she just might be able to attempt a particular operation, with scalpel in one hand and the book in the other, a vasectomy, for example.

Cutting for Stone has the boys growing up as orphans taken in by two doctors who were not their parents; they go to school; one completes medical school and the other becomes a non-licensed surgeon, working with his obstetrician mother. There is a love story, with competition between the brothers, a revolution, and eventually the main protagonist must leave Ethiopia due to political issues. The novel documents his experiences as a foreign intern and resident in the United States and ends with a very bittersweet crisis in which Marion must undergo a liver transplant, with the donor being his brother Shiva, who flies from Ethiopia to Marion’s bedside. Like life, perhaps novels shouldn’t all end happily ever after, as so many do. In the case of this narrative, like life, the denouement is mixed, but a number of loose ends are tied up which clarify multiple mysteries.

If you’d like something weighty, interesting, and informative as a diversion from the upcoming holiday madness, try Cutting for Stone. You’ll come away wiser.

Flag of Ethiopia

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Autism – The Inward Flight of the Bright and Stubborn Child

Posted by David
Temple Grandin with Horse

Temple Grandin with Horse

We just watched a movie about Dr. Temple Grandin, the famous autistic woman who specializes in ‘thinking in pictures’ and thinking like cattle. I have read about her before in a book called An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sachs. It’s a fascinating book.

What struck me about the movie was that supposedly she had photographic memory. Really? In years past, I haven’t believed that people could actually have photographic memory. I’ve thought the phenomenon to be either a lie or just a self-misrepresentation, i.e., one might think that they have photographic memory, but that they are actually just really good either at using mnemonic devices or at visualizing.

When I was younger my dad would say that he couldn’t see things in his head, something I also couldn’t believe. I thought that actually he could see things, but just fuzzy and probably no more fuzzy than most other people. I now believe he might not consciously be able to see things, but that he processes his visualizations differently than I do. He can refute me here.

There seems to be different types of thinkers out there. The types are probably connected to the different types of senses: eyes, ears, smell, taste and even touch. I’d probably class smell and taste together, but maybe not.

Like Temple, I’m a visual thinker, probably because of my limited speech as my brain developed. (I was a stutterer in grade school and secondary school.) Or maybe it is the other way around. My tendency toward visual thinking limited my speech and reading, but that’s a chicken-egg issue not to side track us here.

So, what kind of thinker would my dad be? Certainly, he will need to class himself, but I’ll give it a shot. He’s probably an auditory ‘visualizer.’ What I see in pictures, he probably hears in his head or ‘thinks’ in his head. This might also be what makes him musically gifted…and me not musically gifted. Now, of course, we all cross the borders of these types. We all visualize and we all audiate. But most people excel in one way or the other based who they are and whence they came.

The savant, on the other hand, would be someone who is really good at one particular way of thinking and not good at the others. Something in their early childhood, during brain development, hindered one or more aspects of their character which focused them into another way of thinking and acting. Temple Grandin would seem to be an example of a savant, which makes me think that she may actually have photographic memory, or at least some very heightened ability to visualize something she looked at briefly. But I’m sure even her photographic memory fades quickly, but we’ll need to ask her!

I do recall having a few dreams in my life that were heightened visually. The scenes were so vivid and so detailed, that I remember thinking (during one dream in particular) that there’s no way that my brain could be manufacturing this level of detail. I still remember one of these dreams, but the detail did not remain. It has all turned to fuzz. This does remind me that I do believe memory is beyond the individual. We may be tapping into more than just our lowly brains can muster.

During the past few years, I’ve had the fortunate experience of being able to substitute in some classrooms at our local high school and interact with autistic children. Most of the autistic kids are in distant, deep, and far away in a lonely world. They seemingly have no keen ability, unlike Grandin, with the exception of one of the students who is an exceptional abstract artist. My experience has made me think that the reason some autistic children are exceptional visually is because of the cutting off of the auditory communications with others. By diving inside themselves, locking and throwing away the key, all they have is the visual world that they’ve entered and they lose their ability to communicate effectively with others. They live in that visual world, a beautiful, comfort-filled, yet difficult and frightening place.

In regards to autistic children, there are five interesting factors that I think tell their story. 1) Autistic children are very stubborn and get frustrated easily (at least the ones I know). 2) Two of the highest density locations for autistics are Redmond, WA (Microsoft) and Silicone Valley (smart parents). 3) First-born children are more likely to be autistic. 4) Children of older parents are more likely to be autistic. 5) They are usually ‘normal’ as infants and even toddlers.

The five factors above tell me a compelling story: Autism may very well be a social disease, caused by society’s relentless push toward ‘success’. And it seems to be potentially preventable in some children when young. Smart parents of bright stubborn children shouldn’t push their children to learn too much, or they might just climb back inside their heads and learn that it’s safer inside than out. Certainly, they must be engaged physically, mentally and emotionally. That’s the key. But how to do that seems to be the big question and must be tailored to the individual. Let’s have our kids enjoy childhood and give them opportunities where they can excel. Leading a horse is a lot easier than pushing one. But then again maybe as a species, we just have hit the limit on intelligence and autism is the side effect.

I say all this fairly blindly; my kids aren’t autistic. My 4-year old is very stubborn and wonderful and difficult, but I can’t even imagine what it’s like having an autistic child. The parent must know patience like no other parent.

The most severly autistic boy I know is profoundly stubborn. He’ll throw a fit before he’ll do anything a teacher wants him to do. He can’t talk, he can barely walk, yet he can move a mouse quicker than any 18-year old whizz kid from China. Supposedly, he was a normal 3 year old.

But it seems like it’s generally untreatable once the brain is set in its mold—barring a miracle. The rut in which these people walk is deeper than we can climb down to them. And since it’s partly due to the stubborn nature of humanity, it’s a door they must open to get out. And we sure can’t yell down at them to get them out. That will push them deeper.

The choice of the will is the beautiful story in the Temple Grandin movie we watched. She spoke of doors and going through them. How scary those doors were looming for her. But she kept opening doors. It was her will and her choice to get out and she made it, thank God.

But my favorite of Einstein’s words on religion is “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” I like this because both science and religion are needed to answer life’s great questions. Even scientists such as Richard Feynman, who rejected religion and poetry as sources of truth, concede grudgingly that there are questions that science cannot answer.

-Dr. Temple Grandin

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Is Evolution Unidirectional?

This is in response to “Bonobos for President.”

In regards to evolution, if you’ve read some by Colin Tudge, he talks about ‘types’ and how those types have appeared and reappeared along different lineages of animals. I also think of the Douglas-fir tree. The Douglas-fir tree species has essentially been unchanged for millions and millions of years. This tree is the just the best design for certain climates and ecotypes of western North America. It’s found from New Mexico all the way up into British Columbia. It was the perfect type for a particular set of conditions in Western NA.

I believe that we probably did emerge from some sort of proto-ape, but our species has a final destination. Unlike what I think some would say, I don’t think monkeys will ever become a humanoid. Like Teilhiard de Chardin believed, I feel that all of evolution is less like an endless wave, but more like a bell curve. It is a process that has a peak. That peak has probably already occurred. The lineages have come to their fruition. I’m not saying that species won’t change, but all the big shifts are over. The archetypes have all walked, swam, or flown on earth. And like Teilhard, I believe that fruition of the process of evolution (creation) is Christ. (This is where some will turn off, but try not to. Open your mind.)

Bonobos are a type. They are they tropical-aboreal-omnivore?’ type.  Species usually don’t devolve then evolve into something else. Can you demonstrate places in the fossil record where a species became specialized then reversed to a more primitive form, while then becoming specialized in an entirely different way? If you can, let me know and I’ll rethink things. Seems to me it’s a unidirectional process.

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A Bonobo for President?

Posted by Mike

What if something happened to cause all human life to be extinguished on earth and yet have no other life impacted? What we would have is the earth, populated by all of the existent plants and animals, with the remnants of human life, our constructions and our discards, which would likely fairly quickly be covered over with vegetation, obliterating most of the signs of previous human habitation or presence. I wonder how long it would take for another species to develop which would have the intelligence of humans and the ability to manipulate the environment that we possess. Would it look like us and think and talk like us? And what current species would it develop from? What would be required for it to develop and acquire the characteristics we are talking about?

It seems reasonable to assume that it would be from one of the current other primates from which the new “humans” would develop. I would vote for either the bonobos or chimpanzees. Bonobo-Head.jpgI don’t know which are seen as “smarter” presently. The intelligence of both species has been studied and both bonobos and chimpanzees have been trained to learn complex patterns and to respond to human language and to communicate using geometric symbols. Although it is clearly not well confirmed, in general bonobos are seen as more peaceful and less aggressive than chimpanzees. It should be noted, however, that the two species are very closely related; the bonobos having developed from an isolated population of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees tend to knuckle-walk virtually all of the time (notwithstanding what you may have seen in a Tarzan movie); bonobos are reported to walk upright more frequently, which is related to their anatomical structure that is more adapted to upright walking. The one bonobo I noted walking recently at our local zoo knuckle-walked exclusively, but moved along at a rapid pace.

It is reasonable to select either of these primates as the one to replace us as future profound manipulators of their environment, not because they look a lot like us (I hope), but rather because they are already quite a way along the path needed in terms of intelligence and functional ability. It would take, however, multiple gradual changes in environmental demands for the species to make the modifications necessary to replace us. If a species remains in a consistently stable environment, genetic, structural and functional changes occur slowly and relatively randomly. If new  and constantly changing, but gradual, environmental demands are placed upon the species, changes are likely to occur more quickly and will be in the direction of increased functionality within the changed environment. Changing environmental demands, if they occur at a reasonable pace, along with the presence of extremely varied demands, result in complex adaptive changes in a species, enabling a wider scope of environmental contingencies that it is able to cope with.

I’ll vote for the bonobos; it’s a purely subjective leaning. The ones I saw the other day looked very happy despite being in a zoological prison. So how long would it take for the bonobos to ramp up to our intelligence: a million years; five million; a hundred million; longer? Wikipedia reports that our common ancestor separated from the apes sometime between 4 and 8 million years ago. If we attained our present level of functioning in perhaps 4 million years from that separation point, maybe it is reasonable to suggest that, given the environmental conditions discussed earlier, in 4,002,010 AD we could have a bonobo as President. But I’d go for a half million years; we don’t seem to be that much smarter than bonobos, even now.

Bonobo distribution.PNGBonobo  habitat

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Population Growth

Posted by Mike

Am I out in left field or something? No one’s talking about it,Crossroads baker explosion.jpg but it’s like the horse on the dining room table that everyone ignores. What am I talking about? Population growth. I see pictures and stories daily, depicting mainly third world peoples, families with 2 parents and multiple little children, struggling to cope with the basics of existence, with minimal resources on their own and little to no help from others. The pictures and stories come from all over Africa, from Central America, South America, the Indian subcontinent (including Bangladesh and Pakistan), the Middle East and Southeast Asia. What’s wrong with the picture? It’s simple. The number of children being produced cannot possibly be adequately fed, nurtured, educated, trained, and socialized given the resources of the individual families or of the countries involved. I only read the popular press, but from what I see nothing is being done on a large scale to address the issue of unmanageable population growth.

People in this country were critical when China enforced its “one family – one child” policy for years. The policy, regrettable in its draconian aspects, enabled China to avoid the population explosion that has occurred elsewhere around the globe.

People might think that the term population growth management implies attempting to exercise excessive controls over the freedom of individuals. Granted that the most sure way to curb population growth would be to sterilize a large percentage of a country’s citizens, but only a Stalinesque scenario would support such drastic measures. In a society that is relatively free rational, noncoercive approaches are acceptable.  Some are likely going to say that it is naïve to think that one can influence cultures in which family birth control is completely unknown and in which having many children is a longstanding fixture of the culture. Certainly, overcoming cultural resistance is likely one of the two major factors limiting the success of any attempts at population management. The other major factor is the availability of resources (outreach workers, educators, medical workers and supplies).

When I see pictures of these families with 6, 7, or 8 children – be it in Gaza Strip, Bangladesh, or Uganda – I wonder if the sad women in the pictures would be willing to say, “No More!” given half a chance.



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The Gingerbread Man

Posted by Mike

“You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man.” The fairy tale about the gingerbread man was first published in the United States in 1875. However, the story had been around for generations, and according to Wikipedia there had been many previous versions in various European countries.  In a sense the story is rather gruesome in its ending.

Basically – an old woman makes a gingerbread man. He comes to life in the oven and immediately runs away. He is chased through the town by a cat and a dog, the old couple and others, children and farmers – always escaping – and repeating the echoed refrain, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man.” Finally, he reaches a river which he is unable to cross. A fox offers to take him across. But halfway across the river the fox reneges on his offer and eats him up.

What makes the story fun for children? Likely, it’s the excitement of the chase and the pleasure of repeating the refrain, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man.” It seems plausible that children might get a sense of pleasure also from the control initially being out of the hands of the adults in the story, and the child – the Gingerbread Man – makes an exciting escape from the strictures of adult society. Of course, he is running all the time, and being chased, and in the end the Gingerbread Man gets his comeuppance; the reader sees that noncompliance and escape from the bonds of society can only lead to one’s ultimate destruction, notwithstanding the initial excitement of the freedom obtained. In addition to the lesson about nonconformity, it may be that the end of the story provides some reassurance to children that if they’re good little boys and girls and behave themselves, they won’t come to a terrible end – like the Gingerbread Man.

Hmmm! I find the story and the refrain rather compelling!

“Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!”

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