Experimental Human Beings

Watching Richard Feynman and viewing lectures I have never seen before I enjoy the way he talks about science. To me, as with everything else human beings do, there are two sides to everything. There is the thing itself – the physics of the universe, how we think things works and the whole idea of the tools and theories propounded and excluded or accepted. Then there is the fact that all these sciences are creations of human beings and have a psychology about them even if that psychology is not at once discernible.

What makes physics work is the same thing that makes human beings work in the world – the idea and results of continuous experiments. Many of these experiments we have divided into different classes of the sciences but we have also divided them up into different classes of politics and art. Human beings experiment, we try, we test, we try something else, we copy and we create something slightly new but we always build experiment upon experiment.

So whilst we know that these experiments are opening up the universe to us, creating our societies, enlivening our civilizations we should also know full well that each and every experiment tells us something more about ourselves. Not simply because as Carl Sagan so famously said, we are the stuff of stars, but because as Feynman says, we are the way the universe can understand itself.

 

Commanded

I have always had a leaning towards anarchy, ever since I was fifteen and I learned that archons were basically judges in ancient Athens elected every year and one of them would give his name to that year and so was called the eponymous archon. It produced a form of calendar as people could say ‘remember what happened in the summer of (insert archon’s name), and everyone would know when the speaker was talking about. Some years there was no archon. Anarchon years.

Anarchy has come to mean violent civil disobedience  with intent to overthrow but what it actually means is there is no overseer of the law. I can see everyone immediately thinking that would lead to violence but anarchists have mutated to an intellectual level where lawlessness is as much to be avoided as it is in our own polity. What is refers to is a self governance so refined that we carry the ethical values of civilization not in a series of commands from high, but in ourselves. The preferred anarchist is in fact a far more sophisticated human being than any we have at present for we would agree no group of people could possibly be so ethical as to get along without law enforcement.

Anarchists still  have a long wait for their day.

How Many Days

I am looking at a book on the Six Day war and remembering from history lessons how we title wars, the 30 years war, the Hundred Years war, the war of this or the war of that. Do we really think these wars are all started for different reasons? Do we really suppose that fighting for kingdoms, for empires , for succession, for revenge, for resources are all different wars? That somehow if the soldiers speak Spanish,Dholuo, English or Arabic they are somehow all different soldiers?

History lessons have defined periods of time to teach  and we do tend to divide countries up into strata that make some logical sense, stemming from political or social changes. But I wonder how different we think the English are from the Picts or the French are from the Gauls?

Plato used to talk about the nature of things and differentiated between those things that change and those that do not. Classically he talked about the size, shape, colour and materials of a table all changing but they were all still tables. There was something that was the same no matter what they looked like. The same is true of human beings. Language, clothes, habits matter nothing when trying to define what a human being is because a human being is all times, all countries, all conditions.

Given enough time, everything becomes meaningless.

Israel

There are a few things we never hear in the debate on Israel which bug me.

The first is that the UNHCR was set up to help the Arab refugees after the War and as part of its remit a UN fact finder went out to decide upon reparations deciding that Arab and Jewish loses were ‘broadly comparable’, that is to say the 600,000+ Arab refugees lost about as much as the 800,000 Jewish refugees. We never hear about this any more in the right to return because it does not matter to the Arabs, the right of return to them is a mechanism for destroying Israel by other means not a statement of justice. Unless that is what they mean by justice.

Secondly they tell the Jewish people to go back where they came from. There is never a second’s recognition that the Jewish people were coming home. How could there be, if they recognised that they would have to accept the Arabs invaded Judah in 632 and declared it Islamic for ever and effectively barred Jews from any immigration on a significant scale for fourteen hundred years. Sitting behind a Muslim army that left the Jewish people at the mercy of rabid Christian hatred culminating in the Shoah.

And then the Arabs pretend the Holocaust had nothing to do with them. But then the first weapon mankind ever made was hypocrisy.

Victims

I called a farmer here a few years ago when I found on my walks a dead cow in his field. I thought in my innocence he would drive out and want to know what killed it. I later saw he had dug out a large hole and buried it where it lay. When I was in my twenties I heard a cow bellowing in the night and thought then the farmer would hear it I could not get involved. The cow was dead in the morning so was its calf – caught in the birth canal. I have also been told about the horses that do not make the racing stock due to injury and are shot on their stud farms, out of sight. Many more than become racing horses people bet on.

I do not think people really understand how many lives, animal and human, are lost to provide us with the lives we lead. Nor how callous we are when putting those lives against the financial costs of saving them. Farmers cover up wherever they can, bad publicity is withered on the vine. Bhopal, India is a disgusting instance of corporations not caring about thousands of people.  There is no real wish to hunt out causes and cure diseases there is only the wish to get as many as possible to the money making market place within the acceptable losses.

Its all about percentages not life.

Republicanism in America

When Robert Lee sat down to sign the peace accord after the Civil War he, according to those who were there, referred to the North as the United States, showing that even in defeat he thought of America as two separate countries. It was a painful expression of a political view point still warmly held today. I used to wonder greatly at the way in which the USA was split until I learned that civil war veterans were still marching in the 1930s, and I realized that for most people growing up in the USA the civil war and the wrongs done in the rebuilding of the South with the carpet-baggers, were in the memories of their grandfathers.

This without even beginning to look at the bigotry which is still current as a major stream of American thoughts and practice.

People can pass on their grievances for generations  and the fractures which created the civil war in America have not been healed by the fact that if the South had split, America would not have supported the UK in WW2 as the natural friends of the South would have been through South Africa, the Germans. The face of the world would have been very different for all of us and far worse than it is today.

But Southerners who support the Tea Party do not see that history, they see through their grandfathers’ eyes not their own.

To My Future Readers

I lived – air on tongue, light on hair, skin sea
Touched, fingers horse maned, tired eyes soft-pillowed
A last loving, wall builder drinking tea
In a garden rich with roses, willowed.
My dirt hands wrote and dug, planted in ink
Seeded commas and sentences, infant
Words grown from experiences, thought-linked,
Stained in the grain of the woods, indifferent.
I lived. Saw the dead rotting from war waste
Hasty hatred sucking at lives like sweets
As if there were some glory in the taste
Mouth-rimmed like newborns at their mother’s teats.

You live – and have seen what I’ve never seen
And taken my words where I’ve never been.

 

 

From ‘Loves’ a series of modern sonnets on the theme of love by Daniel Nanavati

India Aside

Mumbai has always been the bustling, legal and financial centre of India  even when I was last there in 1977 as a teenager. It has changed. Not that there is less bustle, but the whole enterprise here is one of huge modernity, mixed with the same sights that have haunted visitors for centuries. The high fly overs and modern shops filled with items from all over the world, and the beggars as traditional as the temples and their gods, with generations of hands held out for a few pieces of coin to buy food, pay off thugs and try to get through the day.

I remember the beaches. the coolness of coconuts, the brightness of sand sculptures, the playfulness of street performers and the sea I was told never to swim in because of the dangerous tides. It doesn’t stop the children jumping in all day long; just tepid European adults.

They say in England they can never build on the sea but Mumbai is a contrary woman, she builds on the sea all the time. Reclaiming more and more as the city grows into something evolving yet immutable. The warmth, the smells, the people do not change, not in a mere lifetime or a single century or over the brief stretch of a thousand years.

Cities evolve with us at the same pace as our DNA mutates: a little bit here, a little bit there. It looks the same. The differences are subtle.

Flight Plans

All this online book ins with airports is fun because it gives you the impression you are in charge of your own destiny. Where will you sit, what will you eat, choose the time to suit your itinerary. And when you have done all that look – you can rent a car, a hotel and see the interesting places there are to visit.

I had a dream when I was a teenager to be like the men and women before the second world war, who went down to the docks on the coast and jumped on a ship to work their passage. Who found themselves spending years travelling, working, meeting people in places where there were no hotels, walking miles because there were no cars, getting involved with people by living with them, fighting next to them in revolutions, learning languages and in a few cases producing interesting works of literature and art.

There are no shortage of places you could still do all that but now you cannot just offer to work your passage as the Unions had to step in to protect men who did not want to expand their horizons but just wanted to work.

They made travelling very boring even if they are essential.

The Walls We Dare To Cross

The brilliant and original George Orwell was disenchanted with his own class in English society and thought that the working classes embodied the values he wanted to live amongst. He was disenchanted to find they did not. In fact the values he espoused are not to be found anywhere in a strata of society – they are only ever found in individuals.

One of the reasons the British and India got on so well was the fact that both during the time of the Raj had well defined classes in their societies. Definitions which E.M. Forster knew well and outlined in his overvalued book A Passage To India. But these strata build up in all societies and people do not cross them very often. The stuff of Hollywood 1930 comedies centres around the rich and poor meeting and having a laugh.

But class is no laughing matter. The fear the rich have for the poor, the indifference one class has for another, the forced marriages to enclose families and class, the passing on of inheritances purely to maintain power over others, the accepted over the talented.

It may be that these things are normal for human beings. But we should own them as part of our animal nature and not part of reason.  Reason should not do anyone down.

Vesuvius

Many years ago when I was a child my aunt went to Italy and came back from visiting Vesuvius the volcano (which was and may still be giving off smoke) and in her memorabilia she had a piece of natural glass. It is a misshapen, chunky, slightly pale pink in places, hard lump of glass formed on the volcano’s side which she picked up when she climbed to the top.

I can imagine objects like this and many others fascinating early people, how they used it and tried to understand it. I can see people grinding this clear material down, and finding some of them concave and convex enough to alter the perspective of objects they could see through them. Just as others might have found oil deposits and found the sticky substance could burn, or came across rocks that gave up their pigments so they could colour their drawings.

This idea of investigating the things of the world, breaking them down, using them, mixing them together is second nature to us now but there would have been a time when this was a new idea, a new way of looking at the world. It is a brilliant technique that has made our cultures possible.

Mummy How Did God Make Me?

God made you out of a puff of air –
Somewhere from heaven near to earth –
Mingled you with all my dreams
Bound with tears left from my youth –
Caressed you with truth’s own breath –
Washed and pure, wisely blessed –
From millions of silver seeds,
Purple gems, strange yet lovely fruits
Fed your ivory-cells with sweets and
Flowers, scents and wines.
He bubbled you to life out of poems once divine;
Filled with prayers all mine –
From laughter, song, dance and golden fields,
Hot spice and tiny birds, then he took your
Soul from his own heart, your blood from rhyme
Yours hands, eyes, mouth, feet, your skin, tongue,
Cheeks, ears, legs, back, spine, guts and voice,
Bones, hair, teeth and lungs from all
My kisses given to your father.
Then god made you mine.

 

From ‘The Silver Hooves’ a selection of poetry by Shänne Sands

Positive Misunderstanding

I do have an understanding of the calmly, unpretentious religious people of the world and rather like this joke.

The Jews of Rome were going to be expelled and they asked the Pope to allow them to stay and after some deliberation with his Cardinals he agreed to let them stay if they could defeat him in an argument on the substantive beliefs of Christianity as against Judaism without saying a word. This gave the Jewish community some heartache as they knew their best scholars could argue but did not have sufficient knowledge of Christianity, so the shoemaker stepped forward and volunteered to argue with the Pope.

On the day appointed the Pope opened up the argument by raising three fingers. The shoemaker raised one finger in response. The Pope then threw open his arms and the shoemaker pointed to his feet. Finally the Pope in desperation showed him the Eucharist wafer and the shoemaker took out and polished an apple and bit into it.

“That’s it,” said the Pope, “you win.”

The Pope looked at his Cardinals and said, “I showed him God was three but he pointed out that God is also one, I told him God is everywhere and he pointed out that he is also in this room. Then I showed him the saving body of Christ and he pointed out that the apple in the Garden of Eden means we are all still fallen.”

The scholars asked the shoemaker what had happened because they were confused. “Well first he said we had three days to leave and I told him not one of us was going. Then he said he was going to cast us all out and I told him I was staying right where I was standing. And then…”

“And then yes,” urged the scholars.

“And then I don’t know because he took out his lunch and I took out mine.”

Adult Humour

I am a fan of hilarious one-line jokes.

I put a skylight in my apartment recently – the people upstairs are furious.

Of course things are always in the last place you look. You don’t find something and then say I’ll just take another look over there.

Why do elephants have corrugated feet? To give the mice a fifty-fifty chance.

If you had six apples and  I took away four what would you have left? A very bad reason for staying in business.

Sometimes they are just plain silly, sometimes they turn the tables on what you expect from the assumptions you have made about the world. Humour they say, is a way of communicating important lessons about the world but whatever comedians say, the messages always stay humorous. It is easy to encapsulate something about human behaviour – be it racism, paedophilia or whatever – in a gag that makes a point but never stops being a gag. That’s why comedians don’t actually ever change public opinion.

Of course we come away saying ‘they are so right’ but we are laughing and that makes us feel good. Good that we got the point? Good that we see what the comedian sees? Good that we have been a little risqué, that the envelope of taste and acceptability has been pushed a little higher? Many years ago someone at college gave me a joke for anyone. You choose the nation you don’t like and insert it at ‘x’.

Why are there only two people at a ‘x’ funeral? It only takes two to hold a dustbin.

What Is It For a Sentence To Be ‘True’?

Philosophers discuss at length what truth in a sentence means. Not, as you might expect, a circular argument since they are presumably using sentences to discuss the matter. In a way what they are trying to gauge and understand is what, if anything, is assumed in allowing us to communicate at all with words.

One of the main breakthroughs in thinking about this was to link truth and meaning.  But the route to doing this is not obvious, as this is not about what the sentences mean to you or me but what they mean irrespective of you and me. One way to think about it, though not a good one, is to conceive of a sentence as a translation of the meaning it conveys and the translation takes meaning and puts into grammar. Then those rules of grammar are learned and we begin to understand what is being said. The understanding presupposes a huge amount if intellectual power to learn wordsand to what those relate in the world, and syntax – which is why we take so long to learn to speak.

The consequence of this is that a sentence can be true. It can also be true as a sentence while being mendacious as a concept. This is not about ‘truth’ but what it takes for a sentence to be a sentence that is true.

In other words we can lie to each other in perfectly correct sentences.

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