Friday, January 23, 2015

Robert Grudin: the mind's blind spot


In the same way that our eyes have blind spots in space, our minds have blind spots in time;  areas of time which we habitually or congenitally ignore.  My own blind spot is the recent past, the events of yesterday or last week.  I experience things quite fully in the present; but then they submerge, not to reappear until they are images on the flat wall of the past.  Why is this so?  Is there something uncomfortable, raw, undigested, embarrassing about the jumble of experience just behind me?  Is it ignored simply because it is too chaotic to make sense?  Look at the past day, the past hour:  their interruptions, frivolities, compromises, false startsWe may well have good reason to overlook the immediate past, for the immediate past holds the uncensored truth of the present.

I have trouble remembering in the evening what I did that morning or afternoon.  This is why I write things down that I want to remember in a small notebook that I carry with me, wherever I go.  I call it my non-volatile memory.  Even this isn't 100% perfect for sometimes I write so hastily that I can't read my writing (too many years in school taking notes).

At other times I don't put enough information down, so when I do finally stumble across the note, I wonder what it means and why I wrote it.  For example, I will come across a note--find and email the name of the author of such-and-such book.  Unfortunately I didn't write down the name of the person I was doing the research for.

I suspect we forget a lot that happens recently because we consider it trivial and don't really focus on it long enough to be retained in memory.   Something happens and then something else happens that pushes it out of our mind, and so it goes, until a significant event occurs, which remains with us long enough to be retained. 

Any thoughts?

Do you have any mental blind spots? 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XXXVI

This is another quatrain that first appeared in the Second Edition.  FitzGerald then included it in the following three editions.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XXXVI

Earth could not answer: nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor Heaven, with those eternal Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Fifth  Edition:  Quatrain XXXIII

Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor rolling Heaven, with all his Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Aside from a punctuation change, the most significant change occurs in the third line.  The addition of "rolling" adds a sense of movement or change to Heaven, while the removal of "eternal" suggests that those "Signs reveal'd" are no longer eternal and may be changed.

To see what Earth, the Seas, and Heaven could not answer, we must go back to Quatrain  XXXIV to discover that in spite of all his efforts, the Poet/Narrator could not unravel "the Master-knot of Human Fate."  In other quatrains, he dismisses those who claim to have the answer.  None who have left us have ever returned to tell us.

One thought that has occurred to me is that the reference to Heaven may be a subtle way of referring to astrology.  The position of the stars and planets do change, and, therefore, the reading given by an astronomical chart on one viewing may be different on another night.  Just what is signified by the Earth and the Seas that mourn escapes me. In addition, just whom the Seas are mourning-- "In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn" -- is also obscure to me.

The main point of this quatrain seems to be that there is no answer to the puzzle of human fate, but this point has already been made in several earlier quatrains. (See Quatrains XXIX, XXX,  and XXXIV)  However, it must serve some purpose for FitzGerald left the quatrain in, with that modification in line three.

I must admit this quatrain is a puzzle. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hermann Hesse: Demian

Hermann Hesse
trans.  Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck
Bantam Books edition 

In an earlier post, Baltasar Gracian suggested that we can't tell a book by its cover.  After reading Hermann Hesse's Demian,  I wonder if we can tell a book by its title.   While Demian is in the novel, and a significant character, I think the main character is really Emil Sinclair.   In fact, inside the book, the title page reads Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth.  Well, enough quibbling, let's get to the story.

Those who have read several works by Hesse will probably recognize the basic themes of growth, the loneliness of the one who doesn't fit in, and the setbacks and obstacles along the never-ending path to enlightenment.  Beyond the mountain range, the hero of Hesse's works always finds another range to climb.  And, death seems to be the only resting place.  Those familiar with Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, Siddhartha, and Peter Caminzind among others will recognize this work.

Various stages in Emil Sinclair's growth:

Innocence:  Sinclair's Edenic existence at home as a child

Rude Awakening: Sinclair's first sin

Rescue and the beginning of his journey: Demian and a new way of viewing the biblical story of Cain and Abel

Debauchery and Sin:  Sinclair goes to a boarding school and discovers sin and alcohol

Redemption:  Beatrice  (see Dante)

A new mentor:  Pistorius
The Return:  Demian reappears

Following is what I consider to be the core of the novel. At one point, Sinclair decides:

"I did not exist to write poems, to preach or to paint, neither I nor anyone else.  All of that was incidental.  Each man had only one genuine vocation--to find the way to himself.  He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal--that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern.  His task was to discover his own destiny--not an arbitrary one--and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.  Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideas of the masses, conformity and fear of one's own inwardness.  The new vision rose up before me, glimpsed a hundred times, possibly even expressed  before but now experienced for the first time by me.  I was an experiment on the part of Nature, a gamble within the unknown, perhaps for a new purpose, perhaps for nothing , and my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine. That or nothing!"

Eastern thought is very strong in this work, as, actually, it is in many, if not most, of Hesse's works.  While I'm far, impossibly far, from being an expert in Eastern thought, I do have one strong objection here.  I see nothing wrong in the struggle for self-enlightenment, but the part that disturbs me is the acceptance of what appears to be one's destiny--"my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine."  In other words, this seems to be saying that if one discovers one's destiny is to be a murderer, then one should accept this and become the best murderer one can be. 

I'm guess I'm too much of a Westerner to accept this.  I do feel that I have responsibility for my actions.   I may have only a limited control over my environment and the things that fate has in store for me, but I do have considerable control over my actions.  Many times I do have choices, choices beyond that of resignation and acquiescence to fate.  Sometimes acceptance may be the best choice, but not always.

And your thoughts?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gregory Benford: the last of the Anomalies

These are the last stories from Greg Benford's latest collection of short stories,  Anomalies.

"Gravity's Whispers"
A CETI Tale:   A scientist with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory--a real institution sponsored by CalTech and MIT) has detected a gravity wave fluctuation and sent it to a mathematician to see if there's something there.  There is, but it's an artificial pattern, obviously created by someone?  And, there's a problem.  To be able to create a gravitational wave with a signal requires the ability to "sling around neutron stars and make them sing in code." Do we really want to open communication with a race so powerful?

"Ol' Gator"
 Evolution seems to be the focus of this strange little story.  It's a narrative told by a GI in Iraq.  He alternates between what's happening to him during the conflict with Saddam Hussein's troops and  memories of his childhood days in the South.  It was that part of Iraq that had been swampland and then partially drained that brought back those memories, for the crocs in the swamp reminded him of the gators back home and his grandpa's war with the patriarch of the swamp--Ol' Gator. 

At one point in the story the narrator is separated from his unit and finds a very large contingent of Iraqi insurgents headed his way.   However he finds he's not alone, for he has some very unusual companions.  Rather than spoil the fun, I'll just quote Loren Eiseley, the eminent anthropologist and essayist:  "The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back into the water. There are things still coming ashore."  from The Immense Journey

"The Champagne Award"
According to a Note provided by Benford, this is a satiric look at the government and population control.  As the general population seems unwilling or unable to control the birth rate, the government steps in with its own program.  People are issued KidCred cards which gives each person the right to bear a child.  They can use the credit themselves or can transfer it to someone else.  Or they could offer it in a lottery in which they get the proceeds.  That could turn out to be in the millions of dollars, if offered at the right time.  The parents of children born illegally, to those without KidCred or who have used up their KidCred, are fined heavily, and the children receive no social benefits and no education.  There is even some talk about prison sentences for those who bear children without KidCred.

Inter-dimensional travel.  As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, one common theme in SF is the time travel story in which there is an attempt to go back in time to prevent some great evil or catastrophe: assassinating Hitler is a favorite among writers. This story doesn't involve time travel but a different method of preventing some evil.

Set some time in the future, Warren has become rich and uses his wealth to bring his dream to fruition.  He has hated serial killers since he first learned of them as a teenager.  It's too late to do something about those in the world in the dimension in which he resides, so he decides to do something about those in worlds in other dimensions, especially those so "close" that there's only a very small difference between them and his world.

He has the people who work for him research these other worlds for those who appear to be the counterparts of serial killers in his world.  He decides to kill them, and to kill them before they've started killing.  In other words, Warren has decided on a pre-emptive strike, since these people have not yet harmed anyone.  There's a problem though, something Warren did not take into account, but he eventually encounters it.

The moral question one might consider is Warren's justification for killing these people: they haven't harmed anyone at the point he is to kill them.  Is this justifiable? 

"Doing Lennon"
This is another cryonics tale. It was written in 1975, some five years before John Lennon was killed in 1980.  Henry Fielding has chosen "the long sleep" before he really needed it.  When he awakes in the 22nd century, he claims to be John Lennon and that he was "fleeing political persecution."  This is why he used the alias.

In his real life, Henry Fielding had been a broker who had done quite well financially, along with surreptitiously dipping into several accounts belonging to others.  He was a devoted follower of the Beatles, collecting records, memorabilia, and gossip about them, as well as memorizing the lyrics to all of their songs.  On his vacations, he haunted Liverpool, picking up the local colour and accents and visiting places important to the Beatles legend. Now he was going to put all that knowledge to work. 

Things go well for a while for him in the future: his singing and guitar playing are accepted by all.  Then things get complicated.  First, he is told that the corpsicle of Paul McCartney has been discovered, and everybody is breathlessly awaiting their reunion.  Then, he discovers Henry Fielding the Real.  Who then is he?

Brief comments by Gregory Benford about each of the stories.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: Appearances

No. 130

Do, and exhibit your doing.  Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem: to have worth, and to know how to show it, is to be worth double; that which is not made apparent is as though it were not, for even justice is not venerated, unless it carry the face of justice; those who are fooled, outnumber those who are not: for it is sham that rules, and things are judged by what they look, even though most things are far different from what they appear; a good exterior is the best recommendation of the excellence of the interior.

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
trans. Martin Fischer

You can't tell a book by its cover.
Appearances can be deceiving.
All that glitters is not gold.

I suspect there are more of these aphorisms of conventional wisdom that warn us that things may not be what they seem to be.

What is frightening though is that even a good action has to take on the appearance of being good because most people are fooled by appearances--for it is sham that rules.  Therefore it's safe to commit bad acts as long as one can give it a good appearance, for that will fool most people.

We can see this today: many politicians insist they are patriots and that those who disagree with them aren't real Muricans! Real Muricans are those who are exactly like them.  Then they pass the most outrageous laws and shout that they are doing this to protect all Americans, to keep America on the one TRUE path, which only they are privy to.  They insist they are protecting the Constitution and yet, state courts and the Federal Supreme Court regularly declare their laws unconstitutional. In spite of this, voters don't see the truth and  obviously are convinced by that flag they wrap around themselves which covers the nastiness inside. 

External appearances appear to be more important than the internal reality.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year Haiku

I'm stealing this idea from Stephen Penz, over at First Known When Lost.  I hope you don't mind, Stephen.   As Stephen pointed out, there are various ways of taking haiku, so here's a few more to play with.

On jolly New Year's Day
     My last year's bills drop in
          To pay their compliments
                       -- Anon --

A cheerful way to begin the New Year.  My credit card bills won't arrive for another week, so they are a bit more considerate.

Such a fine first dream.  .  .
   But they laughed at me.  .  . they said
             I had made it up
                                     -- Takuchi --

First dream of the year.  .  .
I kept it a dark secret.  .  .
       Smiling to myself
                -- Sho-u --

A sad first dream:  compassion?
A good first dream: congratulations?
A fine first dream:  envy?

Still .  .  . I guess this year too
     Will prove only so-so.
                      -- Issa --

Pessimistic?  Or, fear of offending the gods with high expectations.  Can't remember which one, but I read that in one culture, it is dangerous to talk about how well things are going because the gods are always listening.    I think there's one brand of Christianity, one of whose main tenets is that we are not down here to be happy.

Still, with all that in mind, I do wish you all


Note from Wikipedia entry:
"Traditionally, the contents of the dream would foretell the luck of the dreamer in the ensuing year. In Japan, the night of December 31 was often passed without sleeping, thus the hatsuyume was often the dream seen the night of January 1. This explains why January 2 (the day after the night of the "first dream") is known as Hatsuyume in the traditional Japanese calendar."
" . Since 1873, the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, on January 1 of each year, New Year's Day."

 The haiku come from A Little Treasury of Haiku,  trans. by Peter Beilenson.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Gregory Benford: Still more from Anomalies

More stories from Gregory Benford's latest short story collection: Anomalies

Comes the Evolution"

The characters talk, endlessly, about "revolution," but the title of the story refers to evolution, a gradual change that takes place, when one species slowly becomes another.  Note the names of the characters: Lenin, Trotsky, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Emma Goldman.  She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

They see themselves as revolutionaries, but their plans show them to be something quite different.  Eventually they all come together to rejuvenate the Cause, but their plans, however, have evolved into 21st century versions whose new focus is not on changing governments but upon finding a safe haven where they can create a utopia.



Another of Benford's short stories that plays with the theme of religion and science.  An amateur astronomer has discovered that the moon is a few minutes ahead of schedule.  It's still in its proper orbit, but it appears to have somehow been transported to an advanced position.  This is impossible, of course.  Later it is discovered that several stars are also not in their proper position and appeared to have suddenly moved within an hour of the time the moon had jumped ahead.  This also was impossible.

One of the characters theorizes that the universe is a computer program and the sudden movements were the result of a bug in the program.  This, of course, brings up the question of the identity of the programmer.  Also, computer programs are normally debugged, here on earth anyway.  Will this program be debugged?  What effect will this possible bug have on earth and how will the debugging take place?  Will it also affect earth?  Eventually a new field of study emerges: one that is a combination of science, philosophy, and religion--the field of Empirical Theology. 


"Caveat Time Traveler"

This is a short story about time travel and some facts about human nature.  The title says it all:  Let Time Travelers Beware.  Human nature doesn't change.


"Lazarus Rising"
This is a tale of cryonics.  Carlos Forenza is 87 years old.  He has come in for his medical checkup.  If they find something that can't be cured or is extremely expensive to cure, they would put him into cryonic sleep and let the future decide when it was ready to deal with his problem.  They wouldn't even wake him to inform him of the situation.  But, something has gone wrong for he is awake, with his senses disconnected.  Clearly he has returned to consciousness before the process of putting him into cold sleep has been codmpleted.  Now, he has to regain control of his body and let them know that something had gone wrong.


"Isaac From The Outside"
This is a poem that brings in a number of  SF writers, one of whom, obviously, is Isaac Asimov.  The theme is simple:  one shouldn't make assumptions about a person from that person's writings.   The poem points out some inconsistencies between what these SF authors write about and how they live their own lives.

One topic covered is cryonics, about which many of these authors have written in various short stories and novels.  But, the poem goes one to ask the following: how many actually went beyond treating cryonics simply as a story element and looked into it as something they might actually consider for themselves? 

The next question should be the reader's question.  I've always considered cryonics simply as a story element.  But today there are companies in existence that will perform this service.  What about you?  Are you interested?

Hmmmm.  .  . I wonder how much it costs.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thomas Hardy: "A Nightmare, And The Next Thing

A Nightmare, And The Next Thing

On this decline of  Christmas Day
The empty street is fogg4ed and blurred:
The house-fronts all seem backwise turned
As if the outer world were spurned:
Voices and songs within are heard,
Whence red rays gleam when fires are stirred,
Upon this nightmare Christmas Day.

The lamps, just lit, begin to outloom
Like dandelion-globes in the gloom;
The stonework, shop-signs, doors, look bald:
Curious crude details seem installed,
And show themselves in their degrees
As they were personalities
Never discerned when the street was bustling
With vehicles, and farmers hustling.
Three clammy casuals wend their way
To the Union House.  I hear one say:
"Jimmy, this is a treat!  Hay-hay!"

Six laughing mouths, six rows of teeth,
Six  radiant pairs of eyes, beneath
Six yellow hats, looking out at the back
Of a waggonette on its slowed-down track
Up the steep street to some gay dance,
Suddenly interrupt my glance.

They do not see a gray nightmare
Astride the day, or anywhere.

-- Thomas Hardy --
from The Works of Thomas Hardy

Strange juxtaposition here--Christmas and a nightmare.  But, the nightmare seems to be that of someone who is alone.  With no one about, the familiar houses and buildings now suddenly seem strange.  There is no nightmare inside the houses where voices and songs are heard.  The three "casuals," on their way to a free meal are joyful as are the six in the waggonette heading for a dance.  The nightmare seems to be the exclusive property of one who is alone.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wallace Stevens: The Snow Man

             The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the juniper shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- Wallace Stevens --
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

One must be a part of nature--"One must have a mind of winter"-- to be able to look upon the winter scene and not invest it with human feelings--"and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind."   This is the pathetic fallacy, investing nature with human emotions, and it appears frequently in literature and in poetry and in common speech--the sullen cloudy sky, the raging storm, and the cheerful little breeze.

And, any who can avoid the pathetic fallacy "beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  In other words, this person sees only what is there and adds nothing to it.

I think this is what Emerson was saying in his essay, "Nature"  --.  .  .  nature is not always tricked  in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs is overspread with melancholy to-day.  Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.  To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire has sadness in it.  Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend.  The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

I think it is a reciprocal relationship in that we are influenced by what is about us and what we perceive is influenced by our feelings and thoughts at that moment.  Perhaps only a snow man can avoid the pathetic fallacy, "one with a mind of winter," one who is "nothing himself."   

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XXVIII

Second Edition: Quatrain XXVIII

Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
"The Flower should open with the Morning skies."
     And a retreating Whisper, as I awake--
"The Flower that once has blown forever dies."

This quatrain is yet another one that FitzGerald added to the Second Edition but then was dropped from the Third Edition.  What is also interesting is that the last line--"The Flower that once has blown forever dies"-- appears in the First Edition in Quatrain XXVI, but with three very different lines:

First Edition:  Quatrain XXVI

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
    One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

As you can see, the two quatrains have nothing in common, except for the last line.

The opening line refers to "Another Voice."  This refers us back to the previous quatrain in the second edition, Quatrain XXVII, in which a "Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,/'Fools! your Reward is neither  Here nor There,'";  the Here and the There refers to those who work for present and future rewards.  What seems confusing is the relationship between the two Voices and also the statements by the voices  in Quatrain XXVIII. Are they the same voice, one that "cries" when he is asleep and then again "whispers" when he awakes?

              Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
              "The Flower should open with the Morning skies."
                   And a retreating Whisper, as I awake--
              "The Flower that once has blown forever dies."

If he is asleep, then how does he know what this other Voice says?  Quatrain XXIX offers no help here, for it is almost identical to XXV in the First Edition in which this quatrain does not appear.
One point the quatrain seems to make is that, for flowers anyway, there is no reincarnation.  It blossoms and dies and does not return. 

This quatrain seems to have been just inserted, and it is, perhaps, for this reason that FitzGerald dropped it in later editions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Eric Hoffer: The Passionate State of Mind

No. 10

"The dislocation involved in switching from one passion to another--even its very opposite--is less than one wold expect.  There is a basic similarity in the make-up of all passionate minds.  The sinner who turns saint undergoes no more dramatic transformation than the lecher who turns miser."

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

Essentially it seems that people who are passionate about something are much the same, be it sports,  politics, religion, music, wine, or anything you can think of.   It's only the object that is significantly different, not the emotion or intensity, for they are quite similar.  Is a fight between the supporters of two athletic teams any different really than a fight between supporters of two political philosophies or two religions?

Or at least that's what it seems to me he's saying. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Another Dream?

From Life is a Dream

We live, while we see the sun,
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king,
Commanding and governing;
And all the praise he receives
Is written in wind, and leaves
A little dust on the way
When death ends all with a breath.
Where then is the gain of a throne,
That shall perish and not be known
In the other dream that is death?
Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
The fears that his riches breed;
The poor man dreams of his need,
And all his sorrows and tears;
Dreams he that prospers with years
Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
Dreams he that rails on his foes;
And in all the world, I see,
Man dreams whatever he be,
And his own dream no man knows.
And I too dream and behold,
I dream and I am bound with chains,
And I dreamed that these present pains
Were fortunate ways of old.
What is life?  a tale that is told;
What is life?  a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams themselves are a dream.

-- Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681)
from  his play Life is a Dream
trans.  Arthur Symons

And speaking of plays and dreams, one mustn't forget Shakespeare.  Here Prospero refers to the illusions he's created for his daughter's wedding . . .
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
      The Tempest. Act 4, scene 1

.  .  . what else could he have in mind? 

Gregory Benford: more from Anomalies

Here are several more stories from Greg Benford's latest short story collection:  Anomalies

"Twenty-Two Centimeters"

This story plays with one of the present theories of the universe-- the membrane theory.  I'll quote from the story itself, as one of the characters expresses her problem with the theory, which is the same as mine.

"She did not really follow the theory; she was an astronaut.  It was hard enough to comprehend the mathematical guys  when they spoke English.  For them, the whole universe was a sheet of space-time, called 'brane' for membrane.  And there were other branes, spaced out along an unseen dimension.  Only gravity penetrated between those sheets.  All other fields, which meant all mass and light, was stuck to the branes."

The "physics guys" discovered another brane just twenty-two centimeters away from our universe, in another dimension, and signals emanating from it.  They developed a portal into the other universe and Julie and Al,  being astronauts, and not having to understand the theory or the mathematics, were chosen to pop through the portal and take a look.  And discover the source of those signals.  This is a first contact tale, rather unique I thought.  It also has a vivid description of the Counter-Earth and its inhabitants. 

"Applied Mathematical Theology"

Benford here plays with an important astronomical discovery that plays an important role in the present theory regarding the formation of the universe.  It is not a story with characters, but a journal article or something similar that gives an account of "(t)he discovery that the Cosmic Microwave Background has a pattern buried within it (which) unsettled the entire world."

     The temperature of this 2.7 K. emission left over from the Big Bang varies across the sky.  Temperature ripples can be broken into angular- co-ordinate Fourier components, and this is where radio astronomers found a curious pattern--a message, or at least, a pattern.  Spread across the microwave sky there was room in the detectable fluctuations for about 10,000 bits, or roughly a thousand words."

Naturally considerable controversy raged about the message, its creator(s) (if one), and implications to be drawn from this.  At first, the most disputed issue was its nature:was it a real message or just a random collection of fluctuations?

"One insight did come from this, however.  Benford's Law (not the author, and a real law), which states that the logarithms of artificial numbers are uniformly distributed, did apply to the tiny fluctuations. This proved that the primordial microwaves were not random, and so had been artificially encoded, perhaps by some even earlier process.  So there was a massage, of sorts."

It's a short article, almost three pages long and possesses a rather tongue-in-cheek resolution, which leaves everybody happy. 

"The Man Who Wasn't There"

This is a high-tech action story set a few decades in the future.  Islamic extremists are trying to reconquer Europe through the use of terrorist tactics and the courts.  Fully aware of the West's ability to intercept electronic communications, they have gone to a low-tech solution--human memory.  All plans and strategies are now committed to memory and communicated by certain Masters.  And, these masters are fully prepared to commit suicide rather than be captured.

The anti-terrorist squad has learned that one of these masters is now living in a compound in one of the suburbs of Paris.  They are preparing to attack the compound and have a few surprises in store for the terrorists.  One is an invisibility suit, comprised of optical fibers which transferred light waves around the suit.  However, it was still dangerous because it affected light only, not an actual object, such as a bullet. They also had one other surprise for the terrorist.

To get in and get the information, they have to be fast and efficient.

"The Final Now"

With a stretch, one might see this tale as a sequel to the earlier story,"Applied Mathematical Theology,"  a story about a message that seemed to be encoded within the Cosmic Microwave Background."  The message's existence had been thoroughly documented, but three questions still remained: who left the message, why was the message left, and what was the message.

The story begins:

He suddenly thought that they had not seen anyone for quite a while.  Amid the vast voyages, adventures, striking vistas--and yes, while basking in symphonies of sensation--they had not needed company.
        Even as twilight closed in.  But now--
        "Do you recall--?"  He asked, turning to Her, and could not recall an ancient name.  Names were unimportant, mere symbols, yes. . .but He did remember that names had existed to distinguish between multitudes.  When?  First task: to name the beasts.  When had He and She said that?

.  .  .
They were, of course, the two who gave tension to this finite, bounded existence.  This universeDuality was fundamental, as was helicity itself, which necessarily had to be included in this exponentially expanding space-time.

Creativity seems to require two--male and female.  They had also brought forth the Others, short-lived and limited creatures, but who yet had consciousness and intelligence.  These, however, were not completely separate beings for the Others were, in a sense, part of the He and the She.  They were brought forth to "To summon up insights that lie within the two of us, but that we cannot express overtly. To be vast meant having parts of yourself that you could not readily find.

He and She now realize that the universe is running downThey call forth one of the Others and tell him that the end time is near.  Upon hearing this, the Other said strongly, "I do not accept this."  At last, the point.  She said with love and deep feeling, "Then strive to alter."

 Perhaps this story provides the answers to the earlier story in the collection as "The Final Now" was published four years after "Applied Mathematical Theology."

Perhaps not.   

 Your thoughts?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Octavio Paz: some short poems


My steps along this street
             in another street
in which
              I hear my steps
passing along this street
in which

Only the mist is real

   -- Octavio Paz --

I have been in a thick fog or mist and there are strange sounds and strange visions immersed in there, along with me.


He walked among the crowds
on the Boulevard Sebasto',
thinking about things.
A red light stopped him.
He looked up:
the gray roofs, silver
among the brown birds,
a fish flew.
The light turned green.
As he crossed the street he wondered
what he'd been thinking.

         -- Octavio Paz --

I was not very alert when I first read this poem, but something bothered me about it--just couldn't put my finger on it.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn't find it until the third reading.  Perhaps I did see it the second time but refused to "see it."   Perhaps the colors distracted me as I read along--first red, then gray, followed by silver and then brown, with the silver being the only color that didn't immediately precede the noun it modified.  Who knows?  Maybe I'm just an inattentive reader at times (only at times I hope.)


              not on the branch
in the air
               Not in the air
in the moment

                  -- Octavio Paz --

A hummingbird--it's here, and then somewhere else, and then gone.

This one is very much like a haiku, or so it struck me.  I remembered it when I came across the following poem:

Basho An                                                 Basho An

The whole world fits in-                          El mundo cabe                       
to seventeen syllables,                             en diecisiete silabas:
and you in this hut.                                  tu en esta choza.

Straw thatch and tree trunks:                   Troncos y paja:
they come in through the crannies:          por las rendijas entran
Buddhas and insects.                                Budas e insectos.

Made out of thin air,                                 Hecho de aire
between the pines and the rocks               entre pinos y rocas
the poem sprouts up.                                 brota el poema.

An interweaving                                        Entretejidas  
of vowels and the consonants:                   vocales, consonantes:
the house of the world.                              casa del mundo.

Centuries of bones,                                    Heusos de siglos,
mountains: sorrow turned to stone:           penas ya pen~as, montes:
here they are weightless.                           aqui no pesan.

What I am saying                                      Esto quie digo
barely fills up the three lines:                    son apenas tres lineas:
hut of syllables.                                          choza de silabas. 

                                     -- Octavio Paz --

The first and third lines consist of five syllables while the second line has seven--the seventeen syllables of a class haiku.  In the fifth stanza, the second "penas" should have a tilde over the "n."

Basho, of course, is the most famous haiku poet in Japan.  I once purchased a book titled The Haiku Masters and was surprised to find that Basho was not included among them.  The editor in the Introduction explained that the Masters are those superior haiku poets who are second to Basho, who is not a haiku master, but the Haiku Poet.


A butterfly flew between the cars,
Marie Jose said:  it must be Chuang Tzu,
on a tour of New York.
                                       But the butterfly
didn't know it was a butterfly
dreaming it was Chuang Tzu
                                                or Chuang Tzu
dreaming he was a butterfly.
The butterfly never wondered:
                                                  it flew.

                  --  Octavio Paz --

This, of course, refers to a famous saying by Chuang Tzu, some thousands of years ago, in which he supposedly comments on the nature of reality--that one can't tell the difference between reality and a dream.  He said that once he dreamt he was a butterfly and then awoke, and couldn't decide whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu or Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly.  I always believed he was satirizing those pompous sages whose wise utterances consisted of obscure formulations.  They always reminded me of the following:
Seek clarity--        and you gain wisdom.
Seek wisdom--      and you gain obscurity.
Seek obscurity--    and you gain followers.

Octavio, of course, has many long poems, but those are for another day.

Which, if any, are the most interesting to you, and why?

All poems come from The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, edited by Eliot Weinberger and published as a New Directions Paperback in 1991.  Most translations are by Eliot Weinberger.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

My Dinner With Andre, a film

Last year I watched a remarkable film, The Man from Earth, an SF film without BEMs, spaceships, ray guns, space battles, etc.  The film consisted solely of a man who had just told a group of his friends that he was something like 12,000 years old and their reaction to this announcement.  There were three possibilities: he has lost his mind, he was lying, he was telling the truth.  The conversation that followed centered on the first two possibilities for they immediately ruled out the third.  The fascination of the film, for me anyway, depended on the skill of the actors and the dialogue, something which I seldom see nowadays in which films are mostly dependent upon special effects and rapid action so that one doesn't realize how weak the story really is.

I mentioned this film to some friends and relatives, and one of them suggested that I watch My Dinner With Andre, for it was similar in one respect.  The film depicted two friend who hadn't seen each other in several years and their conversation over dinner.  Again, this film depended upon the skill of the actors and the dialogue. 

Wally is the POV character (he's played by Wallace Shawn), and he reluctantly agrees to meet Andre (he's played by Andre Gregory) for dinner, after having lost touch with each other for a number of years.  He had heard some strange stories about Andre.  The characters in the film have the same names as the actors who play them, which leads me to wonder if there is some truth to the film.  According to the notes, they are real life friends and wrote the dialogue and were "More or less playing themselves. . ."

The conversation ranges from the New York theater to strange and bizarre trips to India, the Sahara, and Poland that Andre made.   However, there is a theme running through this, which might be best exemplified by the concept of mindfulness.  I first encountered this in some contemporary Buddhist writings, which focuses on being aware and awake to one's present.  According to this concept, too many people are trapped either by the past or by the future and therefore go through life without being aware of the present, which is the only reality we can know..  They are either overcome by grief or anger or remorse over past events or spend their time planning for and worrying about the future. In both situations people are like robots, preprogrammed by the past or the future and not awake to the present and therefore oblivious to reality: it is though they are in a trance.

Andre's experiences all seem to be directed towards getting him and the other participants to focus on themselves as individuals, to break free of their programming in some way.  Most of the events in the workshops or on his trips  appear to be unplanned or unscripted and depend on the spontaneity of those taking part.  However, we are never shown these events, for we learn about them solely through Andre's description of them. We can experience Andre's past only through his conversation.

Wally, however, is resistant to Andre's theme and sees no reason to change, for he's happy the way he is.  In fact, the thought of just "being" and not doing anything frightens him.  For if he is doing nothing, then he must be aware of himself and this he says he cannot do.     


Wally is however, is not completely immune to Andre's message.  The film opens and closes on Wally.  In the beginning we see Wally running errands and mentally complaining about his bills and lack of income and inability to get his plays produced or even not being able to get any jobs as an actor.  He is almost run down as he crosses the street.  He clearly is not paying attention to his surroundings but is concerned with the errands he must run and his financial status.

There is a subtle difference though at the ending of the film.  We again follow Wally as he leaves the restaurant and this time he decides to take a taxi.  While in the taxi he looks out the window and realizes that many of the buildings that he goes by have some meaning for him, a longtime New York resident.  He now is far more aware of his present surroundings than he was prior to his dinner with Andre.

This film is on my short list of films I will see again.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: 2nd Edition, Quatrain XX

Second Edition:  Quatrain XX

The Palace that to Heav'n his pillars threw,
And Kings the forehead on his threshold drew--
   I saw the solitary Ringdove there,
And "Coo, coo, coo,"  she cried; "Coo, coo, coo."

This is another quatrain that first appeared in the Second Edition and was then dropped from subsequent editions.  Perhaps FitzGerald felt this was repetitive as the previous quatrain also referred to ancient cities that are now abandoned and occupied only by other creatures.

The first line made me think of the Tower of Babel which also stretched toward heaven, but was abandoned.  The third and fourth lines according to the Note refers to another literary work, The Conference of the Birds, by Abu Hamid bin Abu Bakr Ibrhim (1145-c1221) , a Persian who was better known by his pen-names Farīd ud-Dīn and ʿAṭṭār "the perfumer."  Attar was an influential Sufi mystic and poet, and FitzGerald had published an abridged translation of this work.

In Attar's Conference of Birds, the ringdove "is reproved by the Leader of the Birds for sitting still, and for ever harping on the one note of lamentation for her lost Yusuf."   In addition, "The Ringdove's  ancient Pehlevi Coo, Coo, Coo, signifies also in Persian 'Where? Where?  Where?(Wikipedia entry on Attar the poet)

The cry of the Ringdove in the abandoned city has a double meaning therefore.  It is a lament for a loved one who has been lost and also asks at the same time, "Where has he (the glory of the city also) gone,"  an echo of the French poet Francois Villon's lament, 'Where are the snows of yesteryear?' from "The Ballade of Ladies of Times Past."

Quatrain XX really doesn't add anything new to the Rubaiyat, for its theme of the transitory nature of human endeavors had been brought up earlier and will be referred to again in later quatrains.  I doubt that it was missed in later editions.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

John Banister Tabb: "Evolution"--a short poem


Out of the dark, a shadow,
  Then, a spark;
Out of the cloud a silence,
  Then, a lark;
Out of the heart a rapture,
  Then, a pain;
Out of the dead, cold ashes,
  Life again. 

-- John Banister Tabb --
 (March 22, 1845--November 19, 1909)

A Poem A Day: editors:  Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery

"Tabb was a convert to Roman Catholicism, and ordained in 1884 two years after his first book of poetry was brought out through private publication.  Born in Virginia and a blockade runner for the Confederacy, Tabb called himself an 'unreconstructed Rebel,' though he taught English at St. Charles College in Maryland until he was made to retire in1907, probably due to the loss of his eyesight."

I can see this as being the story of a person emerging from some deep personal sorrow, perhaps the loss of a loved one--especially the last two lines: Out of the dead, cold ashes,/ Life again.  He has now reached the point where he can, once again, feel pain, for the numbness of grief is gone.  This one grows on me.  I think I shall do a bit of digging about John Banister Tabb.

Let there be light,
Let there be sound,
Let there be feelings,
Let there be life.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Carl Sagan: A Pale Blue Dot


“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
                     -- Carl Sagan --
Born: November 9, 1934, Brooklyn, New York
Died: December 20, 1996, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Loren Eiseley: "Fly Falcon"

Fly Falcon

All of the falcon kind, the hard travelling
                                 talon-clawed ones
that for so many years I have seen
go over Hawk Mountain on thousand-mile journeys--
at heart I go with them, but I also travel
with the fluttering Monarch butterflies,   
toss on gales lost at sea, or cross the Gulf
                                      with humming birds.
You think this impossible? not with the mind's eye
                                                        my friend
                                           the ever widening eye
of the living world, the eye that someday
will see all as one, the eye of the hurricane,
                                                         the eye
at the heart of the galaxy with the spinning
                                        arms of the suns about it.
Fly falcon, fly Monarch, fly gull
                               and you in the invisible night-tiger's eye
going somewhere in reed grass.  I am there
padding softly with you, fly albatross
that sleeps on the Cape Horn  windsWe are all
the terrible eye that sees the galaxy,
                                  we make it real.
Without us multiplied, what really exists?
Fly falcon, stare tiger in the night grass,
stare that the universe may find itself living
beyond the immortal fires.

-- Loren Eiseley --
from Another Kind of Autumn

I think this is the core or heart of the poem--the eye of the imagination or the mind's eye.

You think this impossible? not with the mind's eye
                                                        my friend
                                           the ever widening eye
of the living world, the eye that someday
will see all as one, the eye of the hurricane,
                                                         the eye
at the heart of the galaxy with the spinning
                                        arms of the suns about it.

But it suggests also something more--"   the ever widening eye/of the living world, the eye that someday/will see all as one." I think this goes beyond a reference to the imagination.  In the Upanishads, correct me if I'm wrong, Brahman is the unchanging reality both in the midst of and beyond reality.  Brahman is all, it looks out of the tiger's eye and out of the eye of that tiger's prey.

And how can one understand the very last part of the poem?

We are all
the terrible eye that sees the galaxy,
                                  we make it real.
 Without us multiplied, what really exists?
Fly falcon, stare tiger in the night grass,
stare that the universe may find itself living
beyond the immortal fires.

The "us"?  All living beings perhaps?   Again, there is that eye that sees the galaxy--that makes it real.  And somehow this eye must
stare that the universe may find itself living
beyond the immortal fires.

Living beyond the immortal fires?

It's a poem to puzzle over.  Eiseley hints in his prose works a belief in something more than the material world, but he only hints at it, points at things that seem strange once one looks closely at them.  I don't read Eiseley for answers, but for questions and perhaps a rattling of my cage when I begin to think I really know what's going on.

I suspect that after reading this poem,  I will see Dusky, my cat whom I have shared my quarters with for almost seventeen years now, and wonder how much I really know about her.   What does she see that I don't?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XIV, Second Edition

This quatrain provides warning about planning for the future when we really don't know what might happen from one minute to the next.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XIV

Were it not Folly, Spider-like to spin
The Thread of  present Life away to win--
    What? for ourselves, who know not if we shall
Breathe out the very Breath we now breathe in!

Apparently,  FitzGerald was dissatisfied with this quatrain for it appears only in the Second Edition and was dropped from all succeeding editions.

FitzGerald employs an interesting analogy here, that of the spider.  The spider spins the strands of its web from its own body, and FitzGerald suggests that our efforts to gain glory or wealth or even life in paradise consume our life in the same way.  He then asks why we should spend our lives doing this for some future gain when we don't know whether we will live long enough to expel the breath we just took in.

Enjoy the Now seems to be his point here, as it is in so many of the other quatrains.