Wisdom for Our Generation, with Illustrations
Without honesty, reality withers and dies. -- Henry F. Senn
A collaborative Internet project containing information about phylogeny and biodiversity
Very sad but true.
What is the best, most important television show ever? It is the 11th episode of the Ascent of Man by J. Bronowski. Unfortunately, relatively few people have ever seen this show or episode, and fewer still understand its significance.
Picking a Republican presidential candidate is like choosing between Moe, Larry and Curly.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
What do these people have in common?
It was horrifying to see Carlie Brucia led off to her slaughter so easily, a young girl with so much of life ahead of her. After I saw the video I was pretty sure she would not be found alive.
I cannot help but wonder what Joseph Smith said to her in that she allowed herself to led off by him so readily. He may have threatened her with a hidden weapon, or had some kind of a story that compelled her to go with him. For anyone reading this, young or old, male or female, you cannot let this happen. You have to refuse to go with a stranger no matter what his or her story might be. If the stranger persists you must make your stand right there in the open, even if you are threatened with a weapon.
Your assailant may be much stronger than you, still you must fight back, run for it, pretend to faint and fall to the ground, or scream your lungs out. You must make it as difficult as possible for your assailant to get what he or she wants from you. You must act to bring attention to your assailant’s actions and your plight. Once you go with a stranger and are led into a car or home, you are surely doomed. The assailant will be able to do what he or she wants with you and do it out of sight. Your loved ones may never know what happened to you.
If you resist, it is a definite possibility that your assailant will conclude that you are more trouble than you are worth and leave you alone. It is also possible that your assailant will have a weapon and kill you on the spot, but even this is better than being tortured and slaughtered in a hidden location. Your assailant will not get what is wanted of you; your assailant is more likely to be caught; and your fate is more likely to be discovered.
Smoking degrades your health. Even if you don’t die directly from lung cancer, emphysema, or some other hideous disease, you will never be as healthy as your non-smoking contemporaries.
Smoking degrades your ability to breath. You will never be able to perform strenuous activity at the same level as your non-smoking contemporaries.
Smoking dulls your senses. You will not be able to smell or taste the subtleties of good food and drink, or even a spring breeze.
Smoking smells. Your clothing stinks and so does everything else around you.
You are impolite. Smoking is an imposition on others. No one else should have to breath the smoke from your cigarette, or worse, the smoke that you exhale. You make health insurance and public health systems cost more for everyone.
You make everything dull and dirty. Your cigarette smoke dulls walls and furniture. Your butts and filters are disgusting. They are everywhere. It makes the streets, sidewalks and parks look like hell.
You do not need to smoke. Most people live out their lives, good times and bad, without smoking. You are an addict, no matter what you tell yourself and others. That is why you smoke.
None of this is the worst thing about smoking. The worst thing about smoking is that you are giving money to tobacco companies who will use it to addict the next generation of children. They own you and they milk you.
The owners and operators of tobacco companies are drug pushers and parasites, plain and simple. They should be in imprisoned along with other drug pushers.
Do yourself, your relatives, your friends, and everyone else a favor and quit, even if it is hard.
Why did you even start?
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
Dwight Eisenhower 1953 speech
Marijuana should not be legalized. The reason isn't particularly about addiction or the possibility that marijuana is a gateway to more powerful drugs. The fear stories circulated by anti-marihjana campaigns are probably exaggerated.
The reason for not supporting legalization is the test cases of cigarettes and alcohol that are available to examine. It is hard to imagine the societal cost of these legal drugs in terms of money wasted, health wasted, time wasted, and the impact on the lives of their victims.
Tobacco smoking is a particularly strong parallel. Smoking marijuana has all the same problems; the injection of hot, dirty smoke into tender lung tissues, secondhand smoke for others, smelly clothing, etc. Naturally, the tobacco companies will want part of the action and use advertising to tell us how romantic smoking marijuana is.
were to be legalized, its negative aspects would have to be added to all
already associated with cigarettes and alcohol. The legalization of marijuana and
perhaps other drugs would only serve to make the sleaze-bag, parasites who sell drugs into honest citizens.
There is no real difference between a tobacco executive who is able to advertise in a national magazine,
and a coke dealer waiting for customers on a dark street corner?
I must admit I was intrigued by the original premise of this book, a delivery person whose everyday assumptions are unexpectedly challenged by a mysterious sage. For me unfortunately, the book lost all credibility as a basis for a serious thought experiment when I read the section on evolution. This discussion is so lame that I threw the book out, not wanting to pass on this ignorance to an unsuspecting victim. In the introduction, the author states that, “The central character (Avatar) states a number of scientific “facts.” Some of his weirdest statements are consistent with what scientists generally believe. Some of what he says is creative baloney designed to sound true.” I considered these possible options but I don’t think the statements on evolution fit either category. Instead, I believe the discussion on evolution reflects Adams’ own naiveté about the subject. I want go through each statement in the book made by Avatar, the know-it-all sage.
Avatar proposes over a few paragraphs that alien scientists, in lieu of finding any organic evidence of our existence, would mistake the pots and pans we left behind for evolving life. He then uses this claim to discredit the evidence of evolution, “The alien scientists would theorize that forks evolved from spoons, which evolved from knives. Pots evolved from bowls. Dinner plates evolved from cutting boards. The sheer quantity and variety of the data would be overwhelming. Eventually they would stop calling it a theory and consider it a fact.” No self-respecting scientist, alien or not, would mistake a pot for living or even fossilized life. Life is nearly infinitely complex and contains organs for extracting energy from the environment and producing the next generation. A pot after all is made simply of solid clay, metal or what have you. Even simple, symbiotic creatures have elaborate organs for living off their hosts. Avatar is right in recognizing that pots and pans evolve, but they evolve only as human culture discovers new materials, better designs and improved manufacturing processes.
Avatar’s listener, the delivery person, counters, “But the dishes have no personalities, no thoughts or emotions or desires.” Avatar answers, “Neither does a clam.” In my mind, the implication that a clam is emotionally equivalent to a dish is the worst offense. A clam has a central nervous system and sensibilities. It can sense things like water quality, the presence of predators, availability of food, and probably many, many more aspects of its surroundings. To avoid dangers and acquire nourishment, clams can also dig or move themselves about on the ocean floor by the use of their muscular foot. My own point of view is that any creature that can sense its surroundings and has some instinct for self-preservation has some measure of recognition of its own existence.
Then Avatar asks, “Shouldn’t we be seeing in today’s living creatures the preview of the next million years of evolution? Where are the two-headed humans who will become overlords of the one headed people, the fish with unidentified organs that will evolve to something useful over the next million years, the cats who are developing gills? We see some evidence of mutations today, but mostly trivial ones, not the sort that became precursors of brains, eyes, wings and internal organs.” Mutation-wise, heads or other organs do not suddenly pop up fully formed and ready for future use. From probabilistic or entropic arguments, this is way too much to expect. It would be like heads in a coin toss coming up billions of times in a row. New structures are always built from existing structures by small, non-destructive changes. Take, for example, the sea otter versus the river otter. These creatures are so similar that anyone would recognize them as otters, but a trained mammalogist would be able to point out many subtle physical features and instincts that make the sea otter more sea worthy. If one has a feeling for how evolution proceeds, it is easy to envision a line of sea otters developing into a future species that is even more dependent on life in the sea (similar to a seal, for example). Scientists have a good idea about the overall pace of evolution and for a large mammal like the otter, a few million years at least would be required for a distinct, new species to evolve.
Avatar goes on, “And why does evolution seem to move in one direction, from simpler to more complex? Why aren’t there any higher life forms evolving into simpler, hardier creatures? ……….” Complexity has generally evolved because it gives species a competitive advantage. The obvious example is the large brain and built in language skills of Homo sapiens. Complexity, however, is never maintained by natural selection if it is not notably advantageous for survival (As in any machine, it takes more energy and more things can go wrong). There are numerous counter examples. One is the populations of fish that have been trapped for many generations in lightless caves. Even though these populations can be shown to be nearly identical to fish that inhabit nearby open streams, they have lost their eyes. One can then argue that these fish, with the loss of their eyes, have become less complex. Others? Whales have lost their claws. Horses have lost their toes. Snakes have lost their limbs and there’s many, many more. There are also countless simpler species that live right along with more complex ones. Basic lines such as segmented worms (e.g., earthworms) have persisted for hundreds of millions of years without gaining one iota of complexity. There is also a question here about the pace of evolution. If there is a complex creature somewhere on this earth that is becoming less complex, we would not be able to recognize it because none of us would live long enough to verify the changes as significant.
Avatar drones on, “And why has the number of species on earth declined for the past million years? The rate of the formation of new species was once faster than the rate of extinction, but that has reversed.” This is a no-brainer. Mankind’s growing population and quest for more and more food, shelter, and pleasure are destroying species far faster, in few human generations, than evolution could ever replace. Further, little is known about the pace of evolution during various epochs. The fossil record gives us only a tiny sample of the bio-diversity that is around at any one moment in time. Most likely, the pace of evolution has varied over time, depending on the opportunities that were available for diversification at that time.
Unfortunately, Avatar goes further, “And how does the first member of a new species find someone to breed with? Being a new species, means you can no longer breed with the members of your parents’ species. If mutations are the trigger for evolution, the mutations must happen regularly and in such similar ways that mutants can find each other to breed. You would think we would notice more mutations if it happens that easily.” As with a mutation, a new species doesn’t suddenly pop out of an egg like an ugly duckling. A mutation that prevented a creature from breeding with its own clan would definitely not pass on its characteristics to future generations, even if these characteristics were somehow favorable to its survival as an individual. On the other hand, a predator, perhaps born with slightly longer legs, would not be prevented from breeding but may have a slight advantage when pursuing prey over open ground. If this individual is successful in pulling down more prey than its contemporaries, it will be able to produce more and healthier offspring with the same trait. Given this advantage, this long-legged trait will eventually become the norm of the species. If one does not believe that these kinds of small variations exist within a species, take note of the field studies of animal behaviorists who learn to recognize and give names to individual animals based on their unique physical and behavioral characteristics. Even though every individual creature can be assigned to a species on a basis of their similarities, each individual also brings a unique set of possibilities to the table of evolution.
Further, the ability to breed is not a definitive criterion for the definition of a species. Some closely related species do interbreed where their territories overlap, or when they are encouraged to breed by special conditions imposed by man. A species is ultimately defined by a package of parameters that include physical characteristics, habits, ecological niche, and nowadays DNA comparisons. It is never a black and white decision to declare a new species. After a scientist proposes a new species, a long process of peer review and debate is required to give this creature an official family and species name.
Mutations are not petering out as Adam’s delivery person suggests. Wholesale mutations into new species are not observed because they never happen. The only time that we can get a sense of evolution happening in real time is with small creatures that produce great numbers offspring. Flies that became resistant to DDT is one example. Creationists and other critics of evolution always try to make the point that no change from one species to another has ever been observed. After all, flies that are resistant to DDT are still flies. This is true, but it is because the pace of evolution is so slow that no one lives long enough to observe the emergence of a new species. In a sense, the DDT-resistant flies could be considered a new species, because they have adapted to a unique ecological niche (e.g., a DDT -laden packing plant) and are unlikely to breed with outdoor flies, which would die if they entered the packing plant.
Finally, Avatar goes on to compare evolution to a coin flip and says, “Evolution also avoids in-between conditions.” This is nearly the opposite from how evolution works and it derives from previously indicated misconceptions about evolution being driven by instant, totally improbable mutations or new species. The evolution of life has to be seen as a dynamic, twisting, branching continuum rather than a series of gigantic and improbable leaps forward. Why are two eyes popular among species and two heads are not? It is not because evolution avoids in between conditions as Avatar states. Two eyes are popular because it is the optimum for provision of peripheral vision without adding unnecessary complexity. Some creatures such as spiders have many more than two. Why not two heads? In most creatures, the head is the center of control. Natural selection would never result in two heads controlling one body. This creature would certainly get in its own way. Sometimes two headed creatures are born, but this is an accident of embryonic development (a failed identical twin) and not genetic coding.
The idea of a thought experiment is a charming idea. It can be both fun and educational to discuss topics such as evolution and their significance in our lives and beliefs. But why would one launch such a discussion on a topic the author appears to have so little actual experience with. Unfortunately, I believe the author’s views are indicative of how most people perceive evolution. If I believed that perfectly formed mutations and new species pop into existence by mere chance, I would be skeptical too.
Dilbert is still pretty cool.
This is one of the few photographs of Henry Frank Senn. Henry is long buried in an uninspiring, commercial cemetery that permits no standing monuments or other prominent elaborations, including garden plantings. This policy was established so that the maintenance staff would not be overly challenged as they mowed. The simple flat marker that is on his gravesite is quickly buried by worms and sod, and the cemetery management has little interest in correcting this*.
In life, Henry was a blue-color individual who did not have a high school education. His father was an immigrant from Germany who did not see any value in his sons attending school. Henry was a very nervous man and had difficulty dealing with chaotic situations. When he was socially pressured in some way, he would break out in hives. He was employed first on a radio production line and eventually managed to raise himself up to the level of a stock clerk, a position that made less demands on his frail nerves. It has been said that that he was good at being a stock clerk because he had a good memory for detail.
Henry did not have the education, social skill, or psychological toughness to rise beyond stock clerk. He was, however, a skilled handyman and he compensated for his lack of work place success by keeping his home and garden in excellent functional and cosmetic condition. Henry loved gardening and the happiest years of his life were those few between his retirement and his death when he could garden and work on his home full time. God made Henry to be a Gardener but then forgot to give him the opportunity.
Henry was nearly stone-deaf when he died. His deafness had progressed beyond the reach of hearing aids or any other technologies that were available at the time. When his daughter asked him when he first became aware of his growing deafness, he talked about noticing a bird singing from an overhead wire and not being able to hear it. Deafness is a disability that should get more attention than it does. Blindness certainly cuts one off from many human undertakings, but imagine being among people and not being able to take part in their conversations. Imagine not being able to hear a human voice, a bird, or music.
Other than the deafness, Henry was apparently in great shape when he died. He had no fat on him and was very muscular. He left his hoe standing in the garden when he passed. He died well. He had a bowl of strawberries from his garden and fell asleep in his bed, for ever. He likely died of an aneurysm as he had complained of a sharp pain in his head earlier in the morning. He was a life-long smoker and this probably hastened his death. Well before this nation generally looked down on smoking, Henry would tell everyone what a bad habit it was, but he never tried to quit himself. He felt that the calming effects of smoking on his fragile nervous system made up for any health risks associated with cigarettes.
Like most working stiffs, Henry never got his 15 minutes of fame, so this website is dedicated to him. This site is unlikely to get a great many visitors, but it is the best that can be done. It is a strange and miraculous technical achievement to allow Henry to be dug up (metaphorically speaking) and projected out to the world.
*Contrast this with a historic city cemetery where families of both modest and substantial means could decorate their loved ones' plots in ways that reflected both the life of the deceased and the character of their families. These cemeteries are full of memories, art, wisdom, poetry, and botany. Botany-wise, historic cemeteries are great places to view many varieties of mature trees and shrubs, some nearly as old as the city itself, and sometimes even heirloom garden plants. Back
I have read a great deal of science fiction in the course of my life. I am especially fond of stories that involve otherworldly beasts. It has struck me that it would be difficult for an SF writer to imagine creatures that are any stranger and more amazing than those that already exist, or have existed, on our very own world. What inspired me to write this is a fresh cup of coffee, and a picture of Walruses in my Audubon engagement calendar? The walrus seems to be a huge, fleshy blob on paddles, with a head that just barely stands apart from the body. Then there are those ridiculous tusks. I believe I have heard that the walrus uses these tusks to rake shellfish from the bottom sediments, but I am unsure if anyone has actually observed this. In any case, the tusks look like a terrible inconvenience when the walrus is just lying around. Could anyone find a comfortable sleeping position with a pair of three-foot tusks sticking out of your face? Evolution would dictate that these tusks must be more of an advantage than a disadvantage, at least to the Walrus.
And then there is the elephant. Without direct evidence of an elephant’s existence, could an SF writer imagine a creature whose nose is still a nose, but has also been adapted for use as a hand? The idea sure sparks my imagination. Is there a technically advanced race somewhere in the universe that uses its breathing apparatus as a hand? The thought also makes me wonder that, if elephant forms had not persisted till recent times, would paleontologists realize that their family had such a wonderful nose. Robert T. Bakker, in his intriguing book “The Dinosaur Heresies,” proposes that Diplodocus may have had a trunk because the placement of its nostrils just in front of and above the eyes is similar to that of the elephant. Would it have been possible to even propose such a theory if we did not have the living example of the elephant?
Naturally, there are uncountable other examples. Think of the insects. The only things that we share with the insects are DNA and symmetry. If an SF writer had never seen a butterfly, could he or she have imagined one? Just think of the faceted eyes, the exoskeleton, the beautiful patterns on its wings, the segmented body, and that life cycle that includes a translation from one form to a substantially different form. They are nothing at all like us mammals. I have noticed that SF writers do often play off earthly forms when describing extraterrestrial creatures.
And then there is us. Here is a creature whose imagination seems almost unlimited. It seems to reach beyond our basic needs. We can even imagine things that cannot be, like flying. I do not mean flying with the aid of a machine, sort of a compromise, but actually flying, by leaping from a window and flapping our arms. People even dream about this (Now that I think about this, we could fly, if we had a large empty space in a weightless environment like the space station). This makes me wonder if we are as imaginative as we think we are, or does all of our imagination ultimately flow from things that we have already observed. Here is a take home test (if you are not home already). Try to imagine a reasonable creature, perhaps from the other side of our galaxy, that is completely different from anything on earth. By reasonable, I mean that it would exhibit some sort of overall order. It would be too easy to generate a shapeless blob with eyes, ears, mouths, or other body parts added in at random locations. I would think it is reasonable to expect some sort of order or symmetry, no matter what the atomic basis of the life form might be.
Does Gambling Hurt Anyone?
Bill Bennett, the author of the “Book of Virtues,” recently got in trouble when it was revealed that he had lost millions playing the slot machines. He said that he didn’t hurt anyone by doing this and that it was his own money. So, what is wrong with gambling? I think we all would agree that it is not a virtue.
To start with, it seems that there are two kinds of gambling. First, there is the purely random electro-mechanical kind of gambling of which a slot machine is the best example. Then, there is the kind of gambling that requires you to face another human being such as a game of poker or pool. In this case, you can improve your odds by working hard to improve your game skills. Sports betting is similar in that if a person is knowledgeable about a particular sport he or she can make an educated guess about the performance of athletes and will fare better over the long run than someone who is not so knowledgeable.
The first kind of gambling seems particularly obnoxious. I have visited Las Vegas casinos and the Indian owned casino in my own neighborhood from time-to-time and the number of people sitting in front of a machine pumping coins and pulling levers over-and-over again was appalling. What a terribly pathetic way to spend one’s short life and bank account. It is also an embarrassment to me as a fellow Homo sapiens to see people waste their wondrous minds on something like this. I once visited a university psychology laboratory where they were experimenting with the brains of white rats. The rats had electrodes implanted in their brains and the electrodes were then attached to a lever in the rat’s cage. When a rat pushed its lever a small electrical pulse stimulated the rat’s pleasure centers (I assumed he was experiencing something akin to sexual pleasure). Once this system was turned on, the rat could not stop pushing that lever and neglected eating, sleeping, and everything else as long as the lever was activated. Those people pulling slot levers brought back memories of those rats. There may actually be a relationship. I would guess that those people are hoping to experience some kind of primitive brain response related to instant gratification. People who habitually gamble at slot machines have apparently made the decision to be nothing more than an animal seeking physical gratification, and have foregone any use of their brain for any higher purpose.
The reality is that casinos can set the payoff rate of electro-mechanical devices like slot machines, and from long experience, they know how to set them to pay off just enough to keep the mark (player) interested. They are even subtle enough to set the machines in high traffic areas such that they pay off more frequently to entice suckers who just happen to be passing through the lobby (Note that, even though the payoff frequency can be fined tuned, this does not mean the machines are technically dishonest. Their payoffs are still random but their payoff is more likely.). The point of this is that over the long run, and even the moderate-run, the house always wins. They just wouldn’t be in business if this were not so.
A May 5, 2003 story posted on www.abcnews.com stated that, “Bennett's favorite games are video poker and slot machines.” and quoted Bill as saying, “…his winnings came close to his losses.” Video poker and slot machines certainly fall into that category of mindless gambling that I mentioned above, demonstrating that he is too morally weak to let go of those levers. I also have a lot of trouble believing that his winnings came close to his losses. That is what all gamblers say. I have often conversed with people who spent a previous evening gambling and they invariably say I won a little, I broke even, or I won some but lost what I won. If I accepted the statements of my modest sample on face value, there would be no casinos because they wouldn’t be making any money. People tend to remember their wins and forget their unpleasant losses. That is part of what makes gambling so beguiling.
The second kind of gambling is in theory more of an intellectual challenge. In the game of poker for example, there are all kinds of nuances related to human behavior, memory of cards played, the probabilities of the deck, and the risk that you can manage. In horse racing as in other performance sports, you need to be knowledgeable about the horse’s previous history, his breeding, and the people who manage him. Unfortunately, with this kind of gambling, the little guy or gal still gets taken big time. The sporting world is full of inside information and payoffs, and taking the over-confident outsider for a ride is the name of the game. As to playing games like poker, you had better be sure you are playing with your equals in terms of stake and skills. Like a fine-tuned slot machine, a skilled player will let his sucker win just enough to give him or her the confidence to keep playing.
Did Bill Bennett do anything un-virtuous? Yes, he did. Time wise, he could
have spent that time writing an even a better book of virtues, maybe
exploring their origins and how they play in our modern society. He should
have done this not to make himself richer but to expand his own horizons
and to insert some genuinely positive influences into society. Money wise,
instead of throwing it at casino owners who are already wealthy and are
largely societal parasites, he should have donated it to positive
community works, the arts, or any number of organizations that promote the
virtues he has expounded on. He could have done more good with his money
if he had just put it into a box and set it out on the curb with a sign
saying, “Help your self but be sure to share.”
I have a patch of wild Black Raspberries growing behind my garage. Although small, seedy and thorny, they have a memorable flavor. I let them grow there because they remind me of my childhood when I could walk out into the open fields around my home and find patches of these berries from which to nibble from. They almost always grew at the edge of a copse where they could get the right mix of sun and shade.
The present day neighborhood children who have few places to hide from adults stop by to savor them, amazed that they just grow there. An occasional passing adult also stops to sample them. I think that they have memories too or they wouldn't bother. I took this photo partly because I was intrigued by the colors the berries develop as they ripen, but more importantly, I wanted to be able to look at raspberries any time I felt like it. Life is too short to enjoy them just once a year.
after the last tree has been cut down
There was an article published in the Science News issue of Oct. 14, 2000; Vol. 158, No. 16, that I recently rediscovered. When I first read this article, I felt it had great significance for those who have an interest in wildlife preservation, particularly Cetaceans (whales), and for researchers that have an interest in mammalian longevity. I even thought the article was worthy of mention on mainstream media. Yet, I never saw a word about it anywhere else (possibly it was mentioned elsewhere and I just missed it.).
The story is about evidence that some whales live many human generations. Let me tempt you with a few quotes from this article:
There is a photograph of these points in the article and they are impressive. At least one of the points is knapped stone.
Now this article particularly concerns Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), but there is no reason to suspect that the Bowheads are a whale apart. I think it would be accurate to extrapolate that other large whales will also be found to reach equally great ages.
For me, this article says something important about hunting. I think we must all accept that hunting is an important component of our history, and when mankind (and womankind) was in a primitive state, hunting was a challenging, dangerous, and even a noble pursuit. For extreme Northern people like the Iñupiat it was probably the only source of sustenance and materials. So, when one goes out to take the life of a beast, it should be done with respect and with serious intent; that is, the hunter should be ready to put every part of the animal to good use. Some hunters do this, but unfortunately, hunting today is a mere ghost of sustenance hunting and it is mostly done frivolously. Killing an animal from many yards off with a high-powered rifle and a scope, is somehow, by some form of twisted logic, considered to be sporting. I guess some just hunt for a thrill they get from blowing a hole in some unsuspecting creature. It should be kept in mind that beasts also have lives and they treasure them. In some cases, they have very long lives. Can you imagine living 200 years -- the close calls, the changes, the lessons learned? Yes, even whales have senses and memories.
The entire Science News article can be found in the archives at: http://www.sciencenews.org.