Just because you find it, don’t stop searching

Recently I went for a walk in Portola Redwoods State Park. The ostensible purpose was to photograph the small but scenic Tip Toe Falls. After scouting the area I chose an oblique view to include the ferns and color from the adjacent cliff walls.

Tip Toe Falls

Tip Toe Falls, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

This image is actually a composite of three photographs. The shutter speed for the base photo was chosen to obtain a balance between motion blur and capturing detail in the flow of water over the fall. However, under those condition the water in the pool looked “frozen”, as that water was moving slower. A second exposure was made with a slower shutter speed, and the area of the pool was copied and pasted into the original photograph. A third image was taken, exposed to bring out some shadow detail on the cliff wall, and the relevant areas copied and pasted into the original. Selective contrast adjustments, cloning out some small, distracting elements and applying some vignetting completed the image.

Before I packed up to hike out, I took one last look around to see if there was anything else interesting to photograph. Jumping to the other side of the stream, I noticed the fern frond that shows up in the center of the photo above, forming a gentle arc against the background of the falls.

Fern Frond in front of waterfall

Fern Frond by Tip Toe Falls, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

This is rather different interpretation of the falls, which now provide a patterned background for the central subject, the grace of the fern.

By now the sun was almost directly overhead, traditionally the worst time of the day for photography. I was hungry and had an afternoon appointment. Time to leave.

But I reminded myself that I was trying to develop a new practice. To be patient. To be open to the moment. It was then I noticed the sun shinning through the overhanging ferns, infusing them with an internal glow. I took several shots, but this is my favorite.

Back lit Fern Frond

Fern, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

In fact, it is my favorite image of the day. An image I would not have captured if I had stopped looking once I had found the image of the waterfall I originally sought. An image I would not have seen if I hadn’t rejected, not once, but twice, the impulse to move on to the next item on my list.

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A Republican becomes a Feminist

I converted to feminism at an early age, although it would be many years before I would even hear, much less understand, that word.

When I was 7 years old my best friend was the son of “intellectual” parents, a rare breed in my New Hampshire town of 6000 souls. And even rarer, his parents were Democrats. As appropriate for the son of intellectual Democrats, one day he taught me how to make campaign placards. We each nailed two sticks together in the shape of a Christian cross and glued them between two squares of cardboard. I scribbled “Nixon / Lodge” on mine while he lettered “Kennedy / Johnson”. Around my house we marched, waving our signs to the quiet amusement of my mother.

In sixth grade we two debated the merits of the presidential candidates in front of our class. He supported Johnson; I was a staunch Goldwater man. He whipped up the class with all the passion and emotion Democrats brought to that campaign. I was cool and logical. Parents called the school board complaining that our teacher encouraged “divisive behavior”. The second debate was cancelled. In the mock election that followed, Johnson won by a landslide.

That same year I was smitten by my first love. She was exotic, beautiful, smart, and funny. Every day we ate lunch crowded together on long, green benches folded out from the wall of the gymnasium. There was never a lull in the conversation.

One day our talk turned to plans for the future. I hoped to be the first person in my family’s history to go to college. She wanted an education too, but “there probably won’t be any money left after my family puts my brothers through college”. Oh, are your bothers older than you, I asked. No. Smarter? Of course not. I became quite agitated. “That’s crazy!” I exclaimed. “That’s the way it is”, she replied.

Here I was, a New Hampshire Republican weaned on the mother’s milk of self-reliance, initiative, and advancement through merit. And here was a wonderful, smart person – my friend – and she saw a very limited future. Was she not self-reliant? Did she not show initiative? Did she lack merit? No. She was a girl.

To this day I don’t know which makes me more angry: the blatant unfairness, or her quiet acceptance of it.

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Live Free or Die

My mother is one of those women who relate through self effacement. For example, after being complemented on a wonderful Sunday dinner, she is likely to respond:

“I always serve peas with this meal; I don’t know why I served beans this time. Peas would have been much better don’t you think? Why didn’t I serve peas! ”

One of the things she regrets is that she passed up the opportunity to name me William Stark Stinson. In my family, William Stark is the name traditionally given to the first born male of each generation.

“Why didn’t I name you William Stark? I’m sure you would have appreciated it more than your cousin”.

Why William Stark?

Every New Hampshire school child learns the story of how on April 28, 1752 John Stark was captured by Indians while on a hunting trip near what is now Rumney, NH. He was used as bait to lure his brother, William, and William’s brother in-law David Stinson, into a trap. At the last minute, John broke free, knocked the Indians’ guns into the air just as they fired, saving his brother’s life.

But not, alas, Stinson’s.

Now some of you may be wondering how this event could result in a family name handed down through the generations, much less being taught to every school child.

How many of you know who John Stark is?

john Stark, Famous Revolutionary War HeroGeneral John Stark, hero of the Battle of Bennington?

Still not ringing a bell?

Let me try another tack. How many of you know the NH state motto? It’s on all the license plates.

Yes, “Live Free or Die” was uttered by none other than John Stark!

(Actually he said “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils”.)

David did get a brook, a lake, and a mountain named after him. I am proud to share my surname with a mountain. A mountain memorializing my relative; the one famed for not being saved by John Stark, famous Revolutionary War hero!

Fortunately, there were other Stinsons around at the time, and one John Stinson became a local and state leader, one of NH’s first supporters of Thomas Jefferson and, according to the History of the Town of Dunbarton, a “strenuous advocate for religious freedom.”

The light of the “Founding Fathers” — Franklin, Adams, Madison, Jefferson — shines so bright it is difficult to remember they couldn’t have accomplished what they did without the support of men and women like John Stinson in all the towns and wilderness settlements of the 13 Colonies. By reading State Constitutions one can obtain an insight into the thinking of those lesser lights on a variety of topics, including religious freedom.

New Hampshire has the distinction of adopting an interim constitution on January 5, 1776, making NH the first of the Colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. They then argued for another 7 years (mostly about how to create a government without giving it any actual power) before adopting a final constitution in October 1783. You may think 7 years is a pretty long argument, but remember it was 8 more years before the Bill of Rights was adopted.

The NH constitution contains some remarkable statements. For example, Article 10 states that, should the government become tyrannical; the people have, not just the right, but the duty, to take up arms and overthrow the government. Beat that, Berkeley City Council!

Of more interest are Articles 1, 2 and 3. These declare that all people are born free and independent, and have inherent rights … not privileges granted by kings – or by the Constitution, but rights that are an intrinsic ingredient of being human. People may voluntarily surrender some of those rights to society in return for society’s protection of other rights, an idea known as the Social Contract, most famously explicated by John Locke.

But the epiphany comes in Article 4. Article 4 asserts that some rights cannot be surrendered to society, because there is nothing of equal value that society can return. The one such right listed is the Right of Conscience.

Think about that for a moment. The framers of this constitution are stating that there is NOTHING you can be given that is as valuable as your right to develop and hold personal beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. There is nothing as important as the freedom to pursue in your own way the answers to the ultimate questions of life and meaning. Not food, not shelter, not life itself. Nothing.

This is the meaning of “live free or die”.

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Adam Smith and the Occupy Wall Street movement

George Will is one of my favorite columnists/commentators. I appreciate his historical perspective and his logical approach. But every so often he seems to lose his perspective and become a shill for ideologues. This past Sunday’s edition of  the TV news show This Week was one such occasion.

Will asked Jesse LaGreca, a blogger for the liberal website Daily Kos, the following question about the Occupy Wall Street movement

Mr. LaGreca, I hear a certain dissonance in your message. Your message is, Washington is corrupt, Washington is the handmaiden of the powerful. A lot of conservatives agree with that. But then you say this corrupt Washington that’s the handmaiden of the powerful should be much more powerful in regulating our lives. Why do you want a corrupt government bigger in our lives?

This is a classic “when did you stop beating your wife” trick question. LaGreca did a reasonable job answering, but I would have been shorter:

Adam Smith

Adam Smith, An economist, philosoper from 1723 to 1790. He's considered the father of the modern liberal economy.

Mr. Will, as a historian, I am sure you are familiar with the works of Adam Smith. In his book The Wealth of Nations he described how individuals pursuing their selfish ends were guided “as if by an invisible hand” to achieve the common good. I think we can call this the “Capitalist Manifesto”. But he also said that the “invisible hand” can only function within a system of laws and common morés.

Is it so unreasonable for the people to demand that their government institute and enforce laws to prevent people from turning our vital financial institutions into giant Ponzi schemes?

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The Search for Intelligent Design in the Universe

With the recent announcement of the Nobel price in Physics, which used Type 1a supernovae as a “standard candle” for measuring distance, I thought it would be interesting to repost this essay I wrote in February 2007. It was inspired, in part by an amazing woman who discovered in 1908  that a class of stars  called Cepheid variables could be used as a standard candle. Her discovery made possible measuring the distance to the stars for the first time. This opened up the floodgates to knowledge about the universe, leading directly to yesterday’s Nobel announcement.

And God said, Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to distinguish between the day and the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years.

And God made two great luminaries, the greater luminary to rule by day, and the lesser luminary to rule by night; and the stars.

And the evening and the morning were the fourth day

GENESIS 1:14, 16, 19

It is said that the luminaries shall be “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years.” In these words are contained more arcana than can at present be unfolded, although in the literal sense nothing of the kind appears.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets 37 

In March of 2006 the team behind the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe released their analysis of three years of data from this satellite. The data was in stunning agreement with the predictions of a scientific theory known as “cosmic inflation”. One of the tenets of cosmic inflation is that in a blink of the eye, the universe expanded by a factor of 1 followed by 35 zeros. If you heard that the universe has been expanding since the “big bang” — this is the bang.

Quantum Mechanics tells us that even “empty” space is bubbling with activity. Elementary particles pop into existence by borrowing energy from the future, and then evaporate, paying back the energy debt before the cosmos takes notice. Inflation occurred so rapidly these fluctuations were frozen as if by a strobe light and stretched across the universe – where they became the seeds around which galaxies coalesced.

Without quantum fluctuations and inflation there would be no stars, no planets — no life.

Cosmic Inflation ties the tiniest and most ephemeral of all phenomena inextricably to the grandest and most durable of celestial objects. And to our very existence. It is arguably the most important discovery of Physics in two generations.

If you missed this, do not be embarrassed. The San Jose Mercury News, self-proclaimed “Newspaper of Silicon Valley”, devoted a mere one column inch, on an inside page, to this discovery.

Compare this to the amount of ink consumed, and the amount of energy expended in our courts and legislatures, over the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in our classrooms.

It astounds me that according to some polls, 47% of Americans believe the earth was created about 6000 years ago. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me. As recently as my grandmother’s 21st birthday, most scientists believed the Milky Way was the entire universe and the sun was firmly at its center. This was 300 years after the Copernican Revolution supposedly ousted the earth from its anthropocentric throne and fully 2600 years after Sanskrit writings postulated the earth circled the sun. This concept of humans being uniquely created at the center of the universe seems to be frozen into our consciousness.

Much has been written on the merits, or lack thereof, of Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory. As interesting as these discussions may be, I think they are missing the point. Intelligent Design and Creationism are bad theology.

The current strain of biblical literalists would have us believe that Darwin hammered the first wedge into the edifice of Genesis 1 and 2 and if we don’t resist the ensuing crack with all our might, the faith will crumble.

Yet we know 100 years before Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, Emmanuel Swedenborg explained in his book “Heavenly Secrets” that there is an inner meaning to the Genesis creation story. It is the story of the transformation of a human from a materialistic to a spiritual being. More than 1400 years before Darwin, Saint Augustine wrote no fewer than 5 books analyzing the meaning of Genesis and concludes “I have not brashly taken my stand on one side against rival interpretations which might possibly be better.” And these luminaries are not alone among persons of faith who have written similarly.

Taken literally and stripped of its inner meaning, the Genesis creation story reduces God to some sort of cosmic model railroad hobbyist. You can imagine him pushing back from the dinner table and telling Mrs. God “well, it’s Wednesday. I’m going out to the garage to put some vegetation, plants yielding seed and fruit trees on my Earth”. Mrs. God retorts “Earth, Earth, Earth! That’s all you talk about these days!” God: “You should be happy I have a hobby which keeps me home! Would you rather I were hanging out with Thor, Zeus, and the guys?”

The dangers inherent in requiring a literal interpretation of the bible is made, perhaps more respectfully, by Swedenborg in True Christian Religion #257. He points out the frequent reference in the Bible to the rising and setting of the sun when we know it is the earth, not the sun, which moves. He then cautions “But if a person convinces himself of the sun’s motion by the reasonings of the natural mind, and more so if he does so from the Word, because it speaks of the sun rising and setting, he weakens the truth and destroys it; and afterwards he is hardly able to see it.”

So how do we see Truth? Revealed truth is obtained by studying sacred texts, mystical experiences and listening to the angels which are always speaking to us. Scientific truth is obtained through the experiences of our senses and the application of Reason. Some apologists claim that each method is valid in its own domain, but they have nothing to say to each other. Creationists assert we must abandon reason when it conflicts with their literal interpretation of revealed truth. I claim that both Revealed Truth and scientific truth are essential to full spiritual growth.

Science will not provide us with moral law; that is the province of revealed truth. However the scientific method is well designed to root out errors and fallacies over time. Given human imperfection, it is all too easy to misunderstand revealed truth, and once you are convinced you have “heard the voice of God”, there is no easy way of correction.

Following the course of reason to the exclusion of revealed truth or revealed truth to the exclusion of reason has led to great evils, such as eugenics in one case and crusades in the other.

Since God created the physical world, granted us the perception of it and the power to reason about it, if you think science is providing you with one truth and religion is providing you with a contradictory truth, then it is most likely you are misunderstanding both. Resolving the contradiction will likely provide you with deeper understanding of both scientific and revealed truth. This is a path to spiritual growth.

Obtaining a deeper understanding through the resolution of seemingly contradictory evidence is certainly true within science itself. The debate in cosmology in my grandmother’s day had to do with the nature of nebulae – things that looked like glowing clouds through the telescopes of the day. Some scientists presented compelling evidence that the Milky Way was enormous in size, and concluded the nebula must be inside the galaxy. Others presented compelling evidence that the nebulae were outside the galaxy, and therefore the Milky Way had to be small. This is no trivial matter since, as you remember, at that time the Milky Way was believed to be the entire universe. Proposing there were objects outside our galaxy put these scientists in the same position as Copernicus when he proposed the earth revolved around the sun.

In trying to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable positions, it was discovered that the truth is the Milky Way is huge AND the nebulae are outside. In fact the nebula turned out to be galaxies in their own right, as big as or bigger than the Milky Way. They only appear small because their distance from us is so huge, the size of the Milky Way pales into insignificance.

Apparently, every so often we get so egotistical God must send us a new fact to remind us we are NOT the center of the universe!

Some people believe teaching evolution will result in the overthrow of moral values. It is interesting to try to reconcile revealed truth with the scientific truth of evolution and see what we can learn about this.  In his book “Wonderful Life”, Steven Jay Gould describes the explosion in variety of animal “body plans” that appeared at the beginning of the Cambrian period, some 540 MYA. Only a very few of these survive to this day. There is nothing obviously “more fit” about the body plans that survived compared to the ones that didn’t. It seems totally random.

Most of the body plans that survived have bilateral symmetry: the condition that our left side is approximately a mirror image of our right side. Several studies have shown that the greater the symmetry of a person the more beautiful we perceive that person to be.

Now what if it had been the non-symmetric life forms that had survived and the symmetric ones were wiped out? What if they evolved into creatures of similar intelligence to us? We would consider them unspeakably grotesque. We would find them revolting. Even the worst Hollywood monsters have bilateral symmetry.

But what does revealed truth tells us with absolute certainty? That God would love that creature. If God loves a creature so frightening to our vision, how can we invoke God’s name to justify killing people because they have a differently shaped nose or a different skin color than our own?

In providing this example, I’m not claiming any veracity to my conclusions. In fact, since Swedenborg tells us that through our efforts on earth we are creating our Heaven, I suspect that it is the struggle itself, rather than the conclusions, that are most important to our spiritual growth. Saint Augustine writes that in his studies of Genesis he has been “interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thoughts” and even Swedenborg admits “In these words are contained more arcana than can at present be unfolded”. Struggling to achieve understanding does not require one to be a scientist, it is available to everyone to the extent God has granted them the power of reason. And if minds as great and inspired as Saint Augustine and Swedenborg could not always achieve resolution to these questions, clearly we are not required to do so.

From my own “search for intelligent design in the universe” (and in the same spirit that we continue to say “the sun rises and sets”), here is my nomination for the best evidence that God exists: In 1893 at the age of 25, Henrietta Swan Leavitt began work at the Harvard College Observatory. She was one of several women who were called “computers.” They had the mind numbing task of measuring the location and brightness of thousands upon thousands of stars recorded on photographic plates. “Thinking” was not expected of her, yet by 1908 she had discovered that a class of stars whose brightness varies periodically called Cepheid variables have a period of fluctuation proportional to their intrinsic brightness. Measuring their period gives their intrinsic brightness. Since the further away these stars are, the dimmer they will appear, comparing their intrinsic to apparent brightness gives their distance.

The Celestial Sphere had cracked! For the first time in history we could measure the distance to the stars!

Galaxy NGC 4603

NGC 4603, the most distant galaxy in which a special class of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables have been found. Credit: Jeffrey Newman (Univ. of California at Berkeley) and NASA

This discovery opened the floodgates to new knowledge. We soon learned that the Milky Way was enormous, but was only one of thousands on thousands of galaxies separated by unimaginable distances. We learned that all these galaxies appear to be racing away from each other because the universe itself is expanding, that this expansion started with a “big bang” and the big bang was initiated by cosmic inflation which wrote microscopic quantum fluctuations across the sky.

Now there is nothing especially miraculous about the existence of Cepheid variables. Certainly nothing that requires divine intervention. But what is miraculous to me is that they are scattered “in the expanse of the Heavens as signs”. It is a miracle that the daughter of a Congregational minister with no expectations beyond a life of drudgery was granted the power to decipher the meaning of those signs. And as a result we are granted a privilege; a view of the universe that demands an awesome, fuller appreciation of the transcendence of a God that created space – and time itself. A God that knew his physical laws acting over 14 billion years would create creatures “in his image”. And because that process is contingent on random events, we are forced to expand our definition of what “in his image” means in ways that lays shame to our selfish, egotistical behavior.

And finally we discover a God capable of knowing each and every individual living on a tiny planet, circling a minor star, near the outer rim, of an average galaxy. And loving each one as if they were the center of the universe.

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Will the 6th Uniformed Service keep us alive?

When asked to name the seven uniformed services of the United States, most people immediately reply:

  1. Army
  2. Navy
  3. Air Force
  4. Marines

Then, after a bit of thought, they remember: Coast Guard

OK. Got five. What are the missing two?

One is the Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corp (PHS). This is why the Surgeon General of the United States always appears in that funky uniform. As the head of the Public Health Service, the Surgeon General holds the rank of Vice Admiral.

I starting thinking about this after seeing the movie Contagion. The movie highlights the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (who are very proud of that) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Except for the easily missed appearances of the Surgeon General, the PHS is not mentioned in the film.

The PHS traces its history back to 1798 when John Adams, second president of the United States, signed into law the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.

Public Health Service physician at Ellis Island inspects an immigrant for trachoma

A Public Health Service physician at Ellis Island inspects an immigrant for trachoma, which entailed inverting the eyelid with a buttonhook, early 20th century. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (Office of the Public Health Service Historian)

In 1878 the prevalence of major epidemic diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera spurred Congress to enact the National Quarantine Act to prevent the introduction of contagious and infectious diseases into the United States. Congress later extended the Act to prevent the spread of disease among the States. The task of controlling epidemic diseases through quarantine and disinfection measures, as well as immunization programs, fell to what later became the Public Health Service.

As vaccines and antibiotics became more prevalent and potent, traditional public health measures seemed passé. Much of the public health infrastructure was dismantled.

Today increased population density, rapid intercontinental travel, human incursion into disease reservoir areas, and misuse of antibiotics giving rise to multiple antibiotic resistant strains all challenge the “modern” disease fighting apparatus. Epidemics are on the rise. A deadly pandemic of the type portrayed in Contagion seems inevitable.

Probably the least realistic aspect of the movie was the speed — 3 months — at which the virus was identified, a vaccine invented and production scaled to commercial quantities. Today we have a well-oiled machine for developing seasonal flu vaccines. The typical development cycle for those vaccines is four months. Developing a vaccine for a never before seen disease will take longer — much longer, if one is even possible. See where we are in developing a vaccine for HIV, for example.

While we wait for a vaccine, it will be old-fashioned public health measures that keep us alive.

Oh, the seventh uniformed service? It is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Commissioned Corp. What, you ask, is that? Weathermen in epaulets? Actually, this service derives from the old US Coast and Geodetic Survey. Seems there was a problem with people being hanged as spies when captured while surveying a battlefield. Put them in uniform and they are protected by the Geneva Convention.

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An Essay on the Role of Government

The debate on the role of government in American life continues unabated, as well it should, since questioning this may well be the essence of what it means to be an American. I would like to explore what may be some fundamental principles, and some odd inconsistencies those bring to light.

The simplest statement may be that governments exist to achieve collectively those things we can not do ourselves. But this can not be correct. There are many ways we can achieve things collectively — through neighborhood associations, fraternal societies, non-profit organizations and corporations, to name a few.

What distinguishes government from these other organizations is the power to compel. If we accept the arguable proposition that the ideal state is one that maximizes the freedom of the individual, then granting an organization the power to compel is not done lightly.

I propose that there are two situations in which the collective be granted the power to compel individuals. The first is when benefits accrue to the many while the costs fall on a few. The second is when the benefits accrue to the few while the costs fall on the many.

Into the first category falls the provision of a national defense. It is completely impractical to protect from marauding invaders the homes of those who choose to support a national defense, while allowing others to be taken. In a state of complete freedom, an economically rational individual would conclude that it is in his best interest to let others pay for national defense since he will receive the benefit regardless. Since every individual will draw the same conclusion, no defense will be provided.

In fact, there is almost universal agreement that the provision of a national defense is the proper role of government. We may disagree vehemently about the size of the defense establishment or its form, but almost all agree that if there is to be a national defense, it is the role of government to provide it.

Note that forcing people to do something “for their own good” does not fall within this category. There needs to be a generally accepted “good” that one receives simply by being a member of society and individuals acting in their own self-interest would stymie the production of such good.

The second category is exemplified by “The Tragedy of the Commons”, first described in 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd but popularized by Garrett Hardin in Science in 1968. A farmer grazing sheep in a commons will calculate the if he adds an animal to his herd, he will reap the benefit, while the cost, in the form of reduced grass availability, is shared by all farmers using the commons. He will therefore add an animal, and another, and another. But every farmer will make the same decision. The end result is overgrazing and ruin for all.

A similar situation pertains to pollution. If I dump my waste into a stream, I gain the full benefit of having the waste hauled away, but the cost is shared with all of my downstream neighbors. As a rational economic being, why would I pay to clean up my own waste?

It would seem that, like national defense, this is a case where there would be universal agreement that the coercive power of government would come in handy, either by compelling people not to foist their waste off on others, or by taxing waste disposal at a rate commensurate with actual costs. It seems this situation is even more compelling than the case for nation defense, as it is not simply a case of recieveing a benefit without contributing toward its production, but of actually causing harm to others. Instead, the role of government in “environmental protection” is hotly disputed and is often set forth as the prime example of inappropriate interference by government in our lives.

How can this be? I can only think that throughout almost all of human history, natural processes in the environment detoxified human waste at approximately the rate at which it was created. And if one place got too polluted, we could always move somewhere else. Nature disposed of our waste for us then , and we expect it will continue to do so. To have our waste disposed of for free became a “natural right”.

There is yet another anomaly in our conception of government, and that involves the provision of a police force. One could argue that anyone wanting protection from the criminal element is free to hire their own body guards. If others choose not to provide for their own protection, who will suffer but themselves? Police forces have enormous coercive power. By what justification do we turn that power over to government?

Yet there is almost universal agreement that policing is a legitimate function of government. It is so universal, so accepted, so unquestioned it is difficult to discern the reason for this belief. It appears that the concept of the Economic Man is a gross simplification. Beyond pursuing our own economic advantage we have a sense offairness. The pursuit of one’s own ambitions must take place within a context of rules and everyone deserves to be protected from those who do not follow the rules. And we have more faith in a police force controlled by us collectively, than one controlled by an individual. In other words, we trust government to create an environment where we all have equal opportunity to succeed.

From this perspective the most diverse elements of the American political spectrum are not so different in philosophy. The FBI and Head Start have the same function: to provide an environment of equal opportunity. The discussion should be about what is effective, not about what is “American”.

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Phi? Phi not!

Each month the Fremont Photographic Society runs a contest that includes a “special topic” category. In August the topic was “curves”. I was at a loss for a subject until my wife, Joy, suggested I photograph a shell. A first I though a shell would be quite boring, but then I got this idea to make it a graphic representation of mathematics in nature. My inspiration was the many graphics I had seen of the “Golden Rectangle”, often shown side-by-side with a Chambered Nautilus shell, like this:

Nested Golden Rectanges create a spiral similar to a Chambered NautilisThe Golden Rectangle has the unique property that, if you lop off a square, the rectangle that remains has the exact same proportions as the original rectangle. Since the new rectangle is just a smaller version of the original, you can imagine continuing loping off squares ad infinitum. Now if you connect the corners of the squares with a smooth curve you get what is known as a “logarithmic spiral”. This “Golden Spiral” bears an uncanny resemblance to the Chambered Nautilus.

The symbol for the ratio of the length of the two sides of a Golden Rectangle is the Greek letter phi, φ, because it is said the renowned Athenian sculptor, Phidias (circa 490 – 430 BC) used it extensively in his work. Mathematically, phi works out to be φ=(1+√ 5 )/2 = 1.6180…

While φ has many fascinating mathematical properties (for example, subtract 1 from φ and you get its reciprocal), what has captured most people’s imagination is the claim that the Golden rectangle is the “most beautiful” rectangle. Phi has been found in everything from the Parthenon and the works of Leonardo da Vinci to the music of Bach. Then there is that Chambered Nautilus. Phi has been found, not just in shells, but in the arrangement of seeds on a  sunflower and the positions of leaves on a stem.

This connection between mathematics, beauty and nature has elevated φ to almost mystical status. In fact, it is often called “the Divine Proportion”.

My project became clear. I would photograph a mollusc shell I had in my possession, overlay the squares and rectangles, float a few equations and capture this mystical connection with an image. Here is the result:

Shell photo submitted to the FPSI think this photo is pretty clever. But there is a problem. Those squares and rectangles don’t look anything like the classic version displayed at the beginning of this blog. And sorry, but there is no way that the ratio AC/AB=φ.

Well, if φ isn’t there in the usual way, it must be there somewhere. Using the measuring tool in Photoshop, I started searching for it. And I found it. Everywhere.

There was still a problem, however.  Every time I thought I found some dimensions whose ratio was φ, I would try to calculate the ratio using the rules of geometry. The ratio never came out to φ. Ever.

I began to worry. Had this mollusc not gotten the memo?

Then I noticed something. It seemed as if every time the shell completed a turn, it doubled in size. More careful measurements confirmed this to be true.

For every turn the radius doublesNow that is pretty interesting. If we take our lead from sports and use “the lap” as the units of measure for the angle θ around the spiral, then the equation for the radius  r of the spiral is r=2θ. What could be more elegant? Not only had this mollusc gotten the memo, but it had gone on to create the simplest possible logarithmic spiral — “2” being an integer, and the smallest one that will generate a spiral.

The Golden Spiral is not the logarithmic spiral, but one of a class of logarithmic spirals. All have the form r=x. For the Golden Spiral x=φ and a=4. For my local mollusc friend, x=2 and a=1. They all have the interesting property of geometric growth: 1 becomes 2, 2 becomes 4, 4 becomes 8 … like cells dividing. Which may explain why logarithmic spirals (although not necessarily golden spirals) are prevalent in nature.

What really happened here? The story of the Divine Proportion is exciting, mysterious and true. These very characteristics started me on this project and without it I would have learned nothing, created nothing. Yet that story also blinded me: as I searched for wonderful examples of how it applied, I could not see broader truths lurking below the surface. I could not see a wonderful diversity of forms, I could not see new forms of beauty.

Revealed truth may be necessary, but deep understanding requires discovery. Discovery involves leaving behind the comfortable and the sure, at least for a time. It is a process of exposing oneself, of lowering defenses, of taking risks. But in the end you not only learn new things, you have a deeper understanding of what you thought you knew all along.

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A Death in the Family

I recently received an email with the subject line

Syd Furman, W6QWK, SK

and I knew a fellow member of the Ham Radio fraternity had passed away.Telegraphy Key

“SK” stands for “Silent Key”. This tradition for announcing the death of a “ham” started in the early days of radio when all communication was by Morse code and the telegraph key was the “human-machine interface”. Hams often have friends around the globe, friends with whom their only contact is through their radio. Friends are frequently known by their call sign — W6QWK — and only secondarily by their name. And for those who practice the art of communicating by Morse, individuals are often recognized first by their “fist” . . . the particular cadence of dots and dashes that is as unique as a fingerprint, as personal as a face.

Today, when radio communication is more likely to be by voice or some esoteric digital mode, the suffix SK remains a poignant reminder of our mortality and shared humanity. It is a reminder that their fist may be silent, but they remain in our memory.

The very existence of the designation, SK, and even more the unquestioned need to announce a fellow ham’s passing, demonstrates the strong sense of community among those for whom Amateur Radio is a hobby. How does this sense develop? After all, for many the only contact with the deceased was the disembodied sounds of dits and dahs emanating from a speaker. The only thing for sure that they have in common is they had to pass an exam to get their “ticket”– their licence to operate a radio station. In the early years they shared the struggle of designing and building their equipment. Today, a credit card and a few clicks on a website will get you everything you need.

An experience some hams have had is providing life-saving communication during a disaster. A state disaster preparedness official recently said “when you need hams, you really need them.” This is because our normal communications networks rely on a sophisticated infrastructure highly susceptible to disruption. With Amateur Radio you have a self-organizing network of self-sufficient individuals.

While providing service during a disaster certainly builds community, only a few hams actually experience this first hand. Yet the sense of a broader community persists. Is it because of a vicarious connection to those individuals? Is it the exclusivity? A connection to history? Whatever the source, it must fulfill a deep-set need to be so persistent.

We have seen the need to “belong” exploited to evil ends. However, in Amateur Radio we see one of many examples of communities of individuals who support each other and support the broader society. This type of “belonging” is vital if we are to flourish — and perhaps even survive — as a society. Perhaps if we better understood what creates communities such as these, we could build a stronger society and a society that also supports the individual.


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