Monday, August 6, 2012

von Stuck's Sisyphus

This is von Stuck's 1920 painting of Sisyphus.  It is an archetypal symbol.  Some say it represents hubris, but I prefer Camus' 1942 interpretation that "we must imagine Sisyphus happy."  Among the thoughts in Sisyphus' mind is probably how to best roll a rock uphill.  Instead of rolling it straight up, by taking a sideways route that switchbacks up the hill his load is less burdensome.  With some imagination, I think that is what von Stuck's Sisyphus is doing.  In any event, the focus is on the person of Sisyphus, who Camus leads us to believe is fully aware of the ultimate futility of his actions. 

Mark Kalesniko - Mail Order Bride

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then graphic novels can convey much more information than the time it takes to read them.  I found this was the case with Mail Order Bride, by Mark Kalesniko.  I came across this book while looking through "500 essential graphic novels." 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

feathered apes

The above image compares brain structures from various species.  Of particular interest to me is the comparison between mammals and birds.  In PZ Myers words:
In mammals, the neocortex is central to higher level thinking. The comparable structure in birds is called the hyperpallium, or Wulst (German for “bulge”). The fascinating thing is that the cellular organization of these two areas with similar functions and perhaps similar roles in generating consciousness are very different.
How do these anatomically different structures allow for similar mental phenomena?

Emory and Clayton stated: "Cognition in corvids and apes must have evolved through a process of divergent brain evolution with convergent mental evolution. This conclusion has important implications for understanding the evolution of intelligence, given that it can evolve in the absence of a prefrontal cortex."  For more, read Avian Brain and Senses, part of an online course in ornithology.

Humans, great apes, corvids, dolphins, and elephants all display similar traits for intelligence.  Since birds are included in this list, we can conclude that intelligence can result from very different brains.  Inevitably I am led to wonder which form of cellular organization is more or less optimal for achieving the functions it serves.  Of course, in terms of evolution, that may simply mean reproduction.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

neuroanatomy of the echidna

This is an image taken from Echidna: Extraordinary Egg-Laying Mammal by M. L. Augee, Brett Gooden, Anne Musser, pg. 46.  The book contains an excellent description of the fascinating anatomy of the echidna brain.  More to come! 

Friday, April 20, 2012

The lungfish long cat connection - Richard Fortey

Richard Fortey recently wrote "Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms" and in this book is a picture of him holding an Australian Lungfish, a truly remarkable animal.  
Which reminds me of Long Cat. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Zhuangzi: "we need not dispute"

Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu), 莊子 in traditional Chinese, wrote a passage in his work that, to my mind, appears to address aspects of existential angst.  It really should be read in context to properly appreciate it.  In the traditional arrangement of his works this passage appears in the second chapter, "The Equality of Things" (or "The Adjustment of Controversies").  There are many translations of this text, the result is that the work of some translators nearly contradicts that of others.  Burton Watson has perhaps the most popular English translation of Zhuangzi, and while in other respects it is very good, I think his translation of this passage misses the point.  My introduction to Zhuangzi was 33 pages of selections with some commentary in Wing-Tsit Chan's A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, a reference I highly recommend.  Of the translations that I think understand Zhuangzi's meaning, I like Lin Yutang's best.  Fung Yu-lan's translation (as it appears in his classic book A Short History of Chinese Philosophy) is also good. 

The original Chinese (I need confimation from a native speaker!): 
The translation by Lin Yutang (I have italicized my favorite line): 
The right may not be really right.  What appears so may not be really so.  Even if what is right is really right, wherein it differs from wrong cannot be made plain by argument.  Even if what appears so is really so, wherein it differs from what is not so also cannot be made plain by argument.  Take no heed of time nor of right and wrong.  Passing into the realm of the Infinite, take your final rest therein. 
The translation by Fung Yu-lan:
Referring to the right and the wrong, the 'being so' and the 'not being so': if the right is really right, we need not dispute about how it is different from the wrong; if the 'being so' is really being so, we need not dispute about how it is different from 'not being so.' … Let us forget life.  Let us forget the distinction between right and wrong.  Let us take our joy in the realm of the infinite and remain there. 
The translation by Wing-tsit Chan:
We say this is right or wrong, and is so or is not so.  If the right is really right, then the fact that it is different from the wrong leaves no room for argument.  If what is so is really so, then the fact that it is different from what is not so leaves no room for argument.  Forget the passage of time (life and death) and forget the distinction of right and wrong.  Relax in the realm of the infinite and thus abide in the realm of the infinite.
The translation by A C Graham:
Treat as 'it' even what is not, treat as 'so' even what is not.  If the 'it' is really it, there is no longer a difference for disputation from what is not it; if the 'so' is really so, there is no longer a difference for disputation from what is not so.
Commentary on Zhuangzi by Brook Ziporyn (from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings pp.xvi-xvii)
The question Zhuangzi faces is indeed among the most fundamental human problems: How should I live my life? Which of the alternate courses should I take as my guide? How is it that I come to choose one course over another? Given that there are alternate ways to see things, why do I, and why should I, see things the way I do rather than another way and thus follow one path rather than another? Zhuangzi’s response to this problem, simply stated, is this: This question can never be answered in the terms in which it has been put, because our understanding consciousness can never know why it sees things one way rather than another, can never ultimately ground its own judgments, and is actually in no position to serve as a guide for living. To consciously weigh alternatives, apply your understanding to making a decision about what is best, and then deliberately follow the course you have decided on—this is the fundamental structure of all purposive activity and conscious knowledge, the basis of all ethics, all philosophy, all politics, all human endeavors at improvement, and this is precisely what Zhuangzi seems to consider ridiculous and impossible. Knowledge is unreliable; Will is unreliable; Tradition is unreliable; Intuition is unreliable; Logic is unreliable; Faith is unreliable. But what else is there?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tai Chi

You may have felt the pressure before: "What can you do for the talent show?"  I thought it would be cool to learn a choreographed routine, and so I looked to Wushu, and in particular T'ai Chi Ch'uan.  I once owned “Tai Chi Ch'uan: A Simplified Method of Calisthenics for Health and Self Defense” by Cheng Man-ch'ing, but I think I sold that a long time ago.  A local martial arts instructor, Master Scott, has "Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Gah Gee" by Master Leung Shum, "Tai Chi Tao" by Cai Long, and “Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan” by Yang Jwing-Ming.  He teaches Wu style Tai Chi.  But the best book I've seen by far is “Tai Chi Chuan: 24 and 48 Postures with Martial Applications” by Shou-Yu Liang.  Along with some clear video instruction I might know how to answer the next time someone asks me "What can you do for the talent show?"

The nice thing about 24 posture Tai Chi is that it was standardized for competition in China (see a list of the existing forms of Tai Chi).  Consequently anyone who teaches this version does so identically.  The DVD "Tai Chi for Beginners" by Paul Lam has a demonstration of this version that is the same as that described in words and text by Yang Jwing-Ming. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Marginalia (formerly Hot Sheets) Episode IV: energy and mathematics

I would like to sequence the genome of thermogenic plants to gain a better understanding of "autotrophic thermogenesis".  Renewable heat is also interesting.  (I wonder if I can keep 1000 gallons of water from freezing outside for a whole year?) 

I heard Robert Lustig on Science Friday recently, and found his arguments about the damaging effects of sugar, particularly fructose, in the modern diet compelling. 

After the Arab Spring, I wonder if any emerging democracies could build approval voting into their election systems.  I really like this voting method. 

I wonder if an optimal and efficient general algorithm exists that can solve all Travelling Salesperson Problems.  (I think ant colony optimization algorithms and other swarm intelligence methods are promising.)  I look for optimal solutions to common everyday problems all the time, so algorithms for solving TSPs remind me of the way my mind works!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Imperfection in Buddhism

Nothing lasts,
nothing is finished,
nothing is perfect.

In carrying water,
and chopping wood,
I am at peace. 

I was inspired by Richard Powell's description of wabi-sabi, Feng Youlan's five main points of Ch'an, and Thich Nhat Hanh's description of apranihita to compose this very short verse.  I hope, if you read it from a Buddhist perspective, you recognize that the subject is not resignation, but liberation.  It addresses pervasive performance anxiety.  (But who can find peace under those conditions?)  Not the best analogy, but it's something like finding a calm in the middle of a storm, or maybe like the concept of "flawed beauty" (though I'd argue that all real beauty is flawed).  Carrying water and chopping wood is a metaphor for any kind of work that is never finished and whose benefits are only transitory, but if not engaged in (as the need arises) can result in considerable stress and anxiety.

Living in the moment is the key to happiness.  To be a child, to marvel at the beauty of the world and see it new for the first time, pure and unstained, without cynicism, without pessimism, without judgement of any kind.  I watched Nature: The Himalayas last night; every exceptional scene brought this to mind.  Reminding myself that everything is transient and fragile allows me to better appreciate it while it lasts, and yet not regret overmuch when something new inevitably takes its place (this sentiment is also called “mono no aware”).

See also Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Piotr Naskrecki

I just had my first consciousness raising experience in 2012 - I attended a presentation by Piotr Naskrecki on the subject of his latest book: Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine.  He was invited to speak at the university by his close friend, entomologist and Fairbanks resident Derek Sikes.  I have been familiar with Naskrecki's work for the last few years since I saw his first book for sale at the local bookstore.  His photography alone is incomparable.  But some of his best work has been in the field of entomology and conservation biology.  He gave one of the best computer presentations I have ever seen, making me wonder how long it will be before he is a TED conference presenter.  After his speech I asked him about cycad seed dispersal, but during the book signing I engaged in deeper conversation. 

"What would be your advice to someone interested in entering the field of conservation biology?" I asked Naskrecki after he told me about populations of insects that were extinct in the wild but sustained in captive populations.  He described this as a very wide area that can be approached from a variety of directions, but it is a field that he said he was leaving.  There are no real victories in conservation biology, it is all about making compromises, and it is ultimately a losing battle.  Most conservation biologists have focused their efforts on documenting biodiversity before it is lost, as that seems a near certain inevitability.  (All the same, he did recommend organizations such as WWF and Audubon as good places to start.)  He said the only solution, which he mentioned only all too aware of its futility as a politically insupportable policy, is population control.  I asked whether raising the standard of living, which tends to result in decreasing rates of reproduction, might be a solution.  He pointed out that this also tends to increase rates of consumption per capita.  The problem seems insoluble. 

How does one reward others for having fewer children, or consuming fewer resources?  The whole concept of "reward" seems firmly grounded in the framework of consumption!  The only thing that can be consumed without being used up is mental phenomena such as knowledge, understanding, and emotional gratification.  Maybe access to social services is another area.  But we need not abandon our self-centered way of life to see the rationale of population control.  Everything reaches a balance point sooner or later.  The question is if we will have the wisdom to anticipate where that will be and hold ourselves back from the edge. It seems clear that we have passed the point of diminishing returns a long time ago, and have placed ourselves in greater danger had we not.  Who has an ethically defensible solution that can prepare us for where we will go from here?
"By the data to date, there is only one animal in the Galaxy dangerous to man – man himself.  So he must supply his own indispensable competition.  He has no enemy to help him.... anyone with eyes can see that any organism which grows without limit always dies in its own poisons."  - Robert Heinlein, “Time Enough for Love”, 1973