Friday, December 21, 2012

Maybe Reality Is Not An Infinitely Peelable Onion?

Science is the search for rational understanding of nature and the universe achieved through replicable observation.  2012 has seen a fundamental advance in the effort to achieve an ultimate understanding of physical reality and the cosmos with the discovery of the Higgs boson.  In July, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in CERN found direct evidence of the Higgs.  Since then, further LHC data appears to place the Higgs more firmly in the Standard Theory that unifies three of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravity).  Perhaps equally significant, however, is what LHC seems not to be finding - evidence supporting Supersymmetry, the only candidate theory physics has to unify all four forces and explain the dark matter that seems key to holding galaxies together.

Supersymmetry posits an unseen partner particle for every particle now known to science.  Supersymmetry is a basis for string theory, which directly seeks to account for quantum gravity.  With evidence for supersymmetry and string theory, we would have a unified theory of forces and particles, uniting the big and the small and explaining "everything."

Trouble is that those particles that LHC could be finding if the simplest versions of supersymmetry were predictive don't seem to be there.  This does not rule out more complex versions of the approach but modern physics has generally been guided by the notion that the simple is most beautiful and the beautiful is more likely to be true.

But its not the details of the current state of physics that I want to talk about here but the very quest for an ultimate understanding, one that explains everything we can see and know by some set of fundamental scientific laws and equations.  The notion that everything has an ultimate explanation, according to a laws-based structure that puts everything in its place, cannot logically be true.  Any explanation of what is by another set of what-ises begs the question of what explains those.  Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem puts this nicely:  “Anything you can draw a circle around cannot explain itself without referring to something outside the circle – something you have to assume but cannot prove.”

The menagerie of particles now known by science includes all sorts of particles with mass (fermions) and those without (bosons).  The smallest fermions include quarks and leptons.  Supersymmetry and string theory seek to explain all these particles by placing them within a frame with many other particles and dimensions that we cannot observe and for which we so far have no evidence.  Meanwhile, an extension of string theory - superstring theory - seeks to explain the Big Bang and space-time by positing other things we cannot observe:  colliding branes.

Let's suppose that we find evidence of some form of the supersymmetry and superstring theories, i.e., that they are "true."  What will explain them?  What will account for whatever laws and equations that seem to predict everything else we can observe?  Where do the laws that govern lawful action come from?  As Gödel proved, nothing can explain itself.

Perhaps, Plato was right.  The cosmos is made up of Forms.  What if the basic building blocks of existence - the bosons and fermions we observe, the structure of space-time, the Higgs field that creates mass, the gravity that pulls mass so tightly that it releases the energy of life in the middle of our sun - all these, just are? 

The explanation of everything is either infinitely recursive - each peel of the onion of explanation simply uncovers the next layer to be explained - or the ground of everything is/was simply there.  Either way, it makes science no less important and useful but not necessarily the answer to all questions and especially to those most human of all questions - why are we here, where do we come from and for what ends?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's Watershed Victory

President Barack Hussein Obama made history for the second time on November 6, 2012. The first time, in 2008, he became the first non-white to win the American Presidency. But that was mostly due to the appalling situation that George W. Bush had created – endless war and economic catastrophe – and the eagerness of the American public to change course. This time Obama won election on his own, by putting together the first winning coalition built upon the tremendous diversity of American society. Romney won the white vote. But Obama won the vote of blacks, hispanics, women, gays and the young, and of big city/suburban dwellers and the “47%” that Romney mistakenly wrote off early in the campaign.

Clearly, many Obama supporters were also white, just not the older, rural, male and richer ones that were the core of Romney's support. Obama won the election because he gained the votes of the diverse, urban America of the 21st Century. He did so because he is clearly in tune with that diversity and because of a sophisticated (and unfortunately expensive) political machine that was able to target and enthuse the many and varied slices of our social, economic, cultural and regional complexity.

The Republican Party clearly understands none of this. Instead of seeking to embrace this emergent diversity, the Republicans made war on it by targeting the black man elected in 2008. Unspoken racial fears still present in much of that section of the white electorate that remains solidly Republican allowed the small government, no-tax-increase fundamentalists to appear to have a solid political base. The rich, white “one-per-centers” making up the Republican elite of office holders and donors sought to build upon this by frightening just enough additional voters to unseat the President they sought to demonize with charges he would make the US into “Greece.” It turned out that this was not enough to win over all those real people with real concerns and hopes not addressed in such simple terms.

The Republicans instead should have sought to seize at least some of the new ground before it became more solidified for the Democrats. In a way, they were fortunate to have finally settled on Mitt Romney – former governor of Massachusetts, a northeastern “blue” state – as their candidate. After his nomination, the ever-mutable Romney could have used his fabled “etch-a-sketch” to begin redefining his party in the more moderate direction it needs to go to remain competitive. Romney is a rich man but Americans don't automatically hold that against anyone. Rich Republicans used to remember that the economic system that made them rich and keeps them rich doesn't, by itself, ensure the fairness and equal opportunity that alone produces majority support for that system. The Republicans needed to find an updated version of someone like Nelson Rockefeller, a true moderate who could project compassion and understanding of the social compact necessary to sustain democracy and yet also be rich.

Romney could have become the new and improved Rockefeller. This would have meant resisting currents that have been building since Goldwater and that eventually undid the moderate wing of the Republican party. Difficult, but a start could have been made, especially running with the incumbent facing strong economic headwinds. Instead, Romney chose to play it safe and instead solidify his (white) base by choosing to move to the extreme right and to pick as his running mate a poster boy for Republican fundamentalism. If Romney had moved earlier and more consistently toward the center, the Republican base would have had nowhere else to go. It still really, really wanted to get rid of Obama. Other Republican leaders could have fallen in line in the interest of winning this and future elections. But none of this happened. Romney's lack of political courage and his choice to run to his “base” led to his defeat and that of the party that jumped with him into the demographic wilderness.

Shed no tears for the Republicans. They have sought since 2008 to lie, bully and scare their way back into power without offering anything beyond fears about debt and big government. Twenty-First Century America is too large, diverse and complex to be governed with a simple no-new-taxes, small government catechism.

President Obama and the Democrats don't have have all the answers either and did not offer any new, big vision in this campaign. But Obama seems to understand that while government cannot and should not try to do everything, it must be a major part of the effort to manage our complexity. Government must help keep our society within the bounds of fairness and justice by providing our free-market economy the political structure (and infrastructure) necessary to empower it to continue to fuel our American way of life for all Americans.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Test Questions

Is man so important as to be the center of his own attention?  If so, why? 

Is there another way to be?  If so, what?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

In or Out?

Was recently talking about the Higgs boson and what it seemed to indicate about the Big Bang.  I gushed that the only way to think about it was as an act of conscious intention, an act of creation.  My friend responded by asking "so what."  How does that help us live now?  That was a good question.

If the Big Bang was a conscious act of creation, if the universe in which we live was "engineered" to be a home for life and consciousness, what was the meaning of the act and what does it say to us today?

First of all let me say that I do not believe in "God."  After thousands of years of human history, that concept is too loaded with unhelpful freight.  Indeed, I don't "believe" in anything as an act of faith.  Rather I follow Saint Thomas in following reason until it can go no farther.  At that point, the finger is pointing at God.  Or as Plato saw it, we can never describe the Good, we can only perceive the world in its light.

However, quantum physics and relativity present us with a deep understanding of the universe.  We can trace back the expanding cosmos we see now to a moment in time and a place in space - the Big Bang - that in fact created time and space.  We can paint a picture of the elementary particles that fill the universe in the form of matter and energy.  We can understand gravity as a bending of spacetime.  We can explain the entire material world of our day-to-day existence.   That our understanding is incomplete - gravity cannot fit into the Standard Model yet, we cannot so far explain dark matter or dark energy and we have no explanation of consciousness - does not impact on all that modern science has so far allowed us to understand and do.

So we tend largely to allow the question of what it all means and where it comes from to hang in the air.  Just one of life's mysteries, the answer to which is beyond our reach and really not essential.

Nevertheless, for some, unless there is a meaning, a reason, life may seem rather pointless.

Following Aquinas and using Occam's Razor, I've come to believe that the Big Bang was the result of a conscious act, an act we'll never understand the mechanics of on this side of the veil.  How something is created from nothing and where the agent of that creation comes from, that defines the outlines of the essential meaning of "God."  But one can think about the "why's."

Being a conscious being, we can at least hypothesize about why.  We can, for example, wonder about how it would be to be everything and eternal, the one thing that is and neverchanging.  Lonely and bored?  Finally coming to the point of dumping oneself into an act of creation that created a stage for consciousness to inhabit space and time in pieces, to fill each fragment and create many from one?  Think about a universe filled with 100's of billions of planets that support various forms of life.  Uncountable numbers of individual consciousnesses each looking out on Others?  No one lonely anymore and not at all boring.

And this bring me to the answer to my friend.  The whole point of creation is to experience fully the many splendored world we occupy for our allotted time.  Not everyone needs this answer.  Some instinctively inhabit their lives fully.  But some cannot help but see humanity as full of folly and much of what passes for news as pointless, evil or just epiphenomenal.  For us, it is worth realizing that the point of the universe may be that it exists, and so do we, for the shear experience of it.  It is all important, we are all important, our lives and loves are all important, our acts and efforts are all important because that it why the universe was created.  Nothing is epiphenomenal or beside the point because the point is us. 

If this is the case, then it is besides the point not to be fully engaged in all that life presents to us, not to strive to understand and act in the best way we know how.  Our "duty" then is to try to make this ride as enjoyable as we can for everyone.  To seek beauty, to do good and to have fun.  Fun was almost surely lacking before the Big Bang.

The choice is to be all in or to be all out.  To be engaged in everything or take no real interest in anything.  Freud called this choice one between Eros (love) and Thanatos (death).  Choosing the later would be a real waste.  To be or not to be. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Higgs and Creation

The "discovery" of the Higgs boson in July was hailed by many - finally, the "God" particle - and understood, assimilated into our understanding of the universe and creation by who?  To the community of physicists, it seemed to "explain" the universe, why it is here, why it is something rather than just eternally careening photons of energy.

In an excellent piece in ScienceNews, Tom Siegfried offers one of the most lucid explanations of what the Higgs is all about.  It's not so much the particle as the Higgs field itself.  In the first trillionth second or so after the Big Bang, everything was the same non-thing, speeding around at the speed of light.  Then the expanding universe cooled enough for the Higgs field to manifest itself.  When it did, it caught some of those careening non-things in its net.  The Higgs field slowed these down, subjected them to resistance, made them move as if they were plowing through a field of thick molasses.  They experienced inertia - thereby gaining mass - and became things, the elemental particles of which matter is made.  The others that were not affected by the Higgs field continued on their way as photons traveling at the speed of light.  The Higgs field, in other words, called forth from light the material universe.  Pretty cool, eh?

And there's more to it.  When the Higgs manifested itself with the (relative) cooling of the universe, there sprang up not just one kind of particle but a whole menagerie of them.  Each kind affected by the Higgs field to a different degree, therefore having differing masses.  Without this differentiation, there would be no real physics or chemistry.  Therefore no suns, planets or life.  In other words, from the moment of the Big Bang whatever was in the expanding blob of energy that was the universe was already imprinted with that which would be manifested as all the kinds of particles and forces of which we know (and probably some we don't know as yet).  The moment the Higgs field grabbed them, they became what they were to be.

This is quite a lot to consider.  But still there is more.  None of this so far explains gravity, dark matter or dark energy.  What about particles with mass also leads to gravity being able to warp time and space?  Where are the particles with mass - though apparently very little individually, as if barely caught by Higgs - that make up dark matter?  And what is that energy that seems to operate on large scales counter to gravity?  What is that dark energy all about anyway?

One can say that we are like dogs in relation to the works of man when we try to grasp what it all means.  Dogs just don't have the capacity to understand man or how we create the world they live in.  And we can't really understand why something exists rather than nothing.  Chalk it up to ramdoness, just fluctuations in the vacuum.

But this bears further thought.  What can we say about creation?  1. It happened. 2. It apparently happened according to laws written into the act - or moment, if you're shy - that would determine what manifested and when. 3. It produced a universe that allowed the development of life and manifestation of consciousness.

My Dad was a truck driver and never graduated grammar school.  He'd look up at the night sky and ask me how I could believe it's just accidental.

A lawful act of creation would imply what? Or as God said to Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding....
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

No Alternative to Capitalism Except Democratic Captitalism

All life is an effort at self-replication. Species that succeed survive and evolve. Those that don't enter the fossil record. All higher forms of life are driven by two elemental instincts, sex and self-preservation. (The former may often overcome the later but that's another issue.)

In human beings, these two drives are experienced as lust – and its “higher” form, love – and the chase after the means of survival – in modern life, money. Capitalism feeds off both of these – indeed combines them – and provides a wide range of products and services in return. (Look at how many combinations of human desire are served by social media such as Facebook and Twitter.) The struggle for the legal tender takes two gross forms in modern capitalist economies: the selling of labor and the reaping of profits by those who control any particular means of production. Capitalism requires both (at least as long as some people are needed to produce and run the machines that increasingly have taken over production).

We all seek more money than we currently have, in part from necessity but as much to provide us with a sense of security. We want to survive today and also tomorrow and the day after. We never know when enough might not be enough so we keep wanting more. Seeking riches is simply the highest manifestation of the drive for self-preservation. No other economic system so deeply satisfies this need than capitalism.

Capitalism is a complete economic system. It directly serves the human hunger for more and more and provides the means to satisfy that hunger. It does this through utilizing the division of labor that arises from the various forms of inequality – those which exist by nature, those that derive from human prejudices and vagaries and those that result from the workings of the capitalist system itself. Put simply, some people work to survive and some reap profit from the work (often including their own).

There seems no real alternative to capitalism because it works directly off of our two most basic drives. Many – most of the world's religions as well as Marx, Luddites, socialists, romantics, nihilists etc – have bemoaned this or looked for alternatives. But there seems no other way to organize an efficient, growing economy than through private ownership and a free market. State control and social ownership have no instinctual basis in human nature and don't work in practice.

The problem arises because capitalism is amoral and by itself produces unfair and unjust outcomes. The belief in some invisible hand that somehow makes it all come out right is an outdated religious notion that flies in the face of our actual experience.

The issue of morality and justice comes into it because humans do not live as monads but as members of society. We cannot survive as individuals outside society. The stability of society, any society, depends on a degree of social cohesion sufficient to keep it from breaking down into an Hobbesian state of nature. Government alone – however much a Leviathan – cannot provide sufficient efficient cohesion. Political dictatorship is incompatible with long-term economic prosperity, it dams the flow of individual freedom that drives the innovation that a capitalist economy requires to avoid stagnation. A widespread experience of the fairness and justice of how the economy functions is the only sound basis for social cohesion in a capitalist society. In other words, capitalism must be tempered sufficiently to provide a common sense of “ownership” or it becomes disruptive.

Capitalism must therefore be regulated for its – and our – own good. Such regulation must somehow represent everyone the system serves. It must therefore be democratic. Only through the functioning of democratic governance can the necessary element of fairness and justice be introduced in a way that serves everyone's efforts at self-preservation. Regulating a capitalist economy – placing limits and requirements on private ownership and market activities – by collective decisions taken through democratic means is the only alternative to capitalism. There seems no other.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Reading Ulysses

Just finished reading James Joyce's Ulysses.  Figured it was about time.  Read it on my Kindle using a free version downloaded from the Gutenberg Project.  Tried the free Amazon version but it was incomplete. 

I'm not a "Joycean."  And although I am traveling to Ireland shortly, I will not seek to follow Leopold Bloom's tracks through Dublin.  There was lots in the book that I didn't get, allusions to Dublin and local/Irish events, some of the untranslated text, some of the words Joyce used or coined.  Sometimes, I couldn't follow what was going on.  But none of this really mattered.  What Joyce managed to do in his 265,000 words was simply astonishing and wonderful.  Through his various techniques - most notably perhaps his stream-of-consciousness rendering of Bloom's wanderings and fantasies - is to convey a human being from the inside.  Over the hundreds of pages taking place in one long day, Bloom springs up in your apprehension as a full-formed presence, like a living flame in your mind.  His being is laid bare, his thoughts - free flowing and disjointed as are our own - his deepest fantasies and fears, his knowing efforts to avoid painful truths, his obsessions, his efforts to make sense of the world he perceives, his pleasures, his relationships with other, everything we reveal to and hide from the outside world.  Bloom becomes a friend - despite his hidden recesses he is quite likable - that you miss when the book ends.  In a bit less space, Joyce also bring you inside a projection of a younger self - Stephen Dedalus - on the day the book takes place - June 16, 1904 - and Bloom's wife Molly.

Shakespeare was the English language master of the social setting and dynamics, of the deep psychology of power, of eternal conflicts.  Joyce was the master of the individual person and Ulysses a truly marvelous book.

Lines I've plucked from reading Ulysses can be found here by searching on "Joyce."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Time to Found the Foundation?

Seventy years ago, Isaac Asimov's fictional character Hari Seldon invented the "science of psychohistory."  Psychohistory was a mathematical approach to predict and shape the future by influencing the course of events through manipulating the probabilistic laws of mass action.  A form of "mathematical sociology" modeled on mathematical economics, Seldon based psychohistory on his "discovery" that there existed formula and equations that could encapsulate societal dynamics and provide solutions to problems.  He used it to seek to manage the long term history of a human society that had spread throughout our Galaxy.  He foresaw a time of cyclical disintegration and sought to use his "science" and the two "Foundations" founded upon it to use the equations to tweak events and reduce the time of recovery.

Paul Krugman claims that his discovery of the fictional mathematical history is what led him to study economics.  Indeed, "psychohistory"  shares the economist assumption that society moves in cycles and that good times alternate with bad ones.  Like economics, Seldon's science could be used to try to extend the good and shorten the bad.  There was also a deeper tie between the two, the view that the best economy - and the society it was based upon - worked through the central mechanisms of individual choice and freedom in a free market of exchange. 

Democracy and capitalism do seem to be the most effective way to maximize social and economic  good in the long run.  Any society that limits either - that doesn't have both - will sooner or later limit its own ability to sustain itself.  In other words - in this optimistic view - democracy combined with free market capitalism are mutually re-enforcing and sure to win over all competitors in the long run.  The short run may be another matter.  And as Seldon foresaw, the short run may last a long time. 

I mention all this because it occurs to me that the key element of Asimov's fictional science - as it is for economics - is the assumption that there are formulas for understanding what is happening to us, predicting the future and undertaking actions to manage that future.  In other words, there are solutions to the complex equations that are determining events.  Furthermore, these solutions have as their aim - if not their immediate means - perfecting implementation of democratic governance and free market exchange.  Though economics traditionally postulated an "invisible hand," since Keynes it has been understood that a "free market" does not mean an untended one.  It is also understood that total government control of an economy is not efficient.  The best solution seems to require the intersection of democratic government and free markets, where the good of the whole society as determined by the body of citizens impacts the actions and interactions of individuals and groups seeking to maximize their own benefit.

So the question becomes, are there formula or possibly even equations for analyzing our evolving global society as the fictional Seldon foresaw?  Should we stop arguing about climate change, ideology, history and everything else and instead start looking for ways to identify and manage the trends and the likely futures we can foresee?  Is it time to found the Foundation?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Photo Homage to the C&O Canal

In 1753, Lt. Col. George Washington was sent to see if he could talk the French out of a fort they had constructed in what is now western Pennsylvania near Lake Erie.  He was rebuffed.  He returned to the area in 1754 to try to dislodge the French from their new Fort Dusquesne at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, where the two form the Ohio River at what is now Pittsburgh.  On the way there, he encountered the Ohiopyle rapids on the Youghiogheny River.  He could not go further by boat.

Washington remembered this years later when he envisioned a canal from Ohio to the Potomac to allow transport by water to and from the new American West.  He founded the Potowmack Company in 1785 to improve navigation along the river.  In 1824, the company passed its rights to the Chesapeake and Ohio Company, which started building the Canal up from Washington in 1828.  It reached Cumberland, Maryland in 1850 but was by then already facing competition from the railroads.  Plans to push on to Pittsburgh were abandoned but the C&O functioned as it was until 1924, 170 years after Washington first saw the possible water route west.

President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps began rehabilitating the Canal during the Great Depression and today it's a National Park.  We in the DC area live with this treasure.  Many people visit some part of the 185 miles of the trail.  I've biked it or parts several times over the years, the latest in May as the second part of a trip down the original canal path from Pittsburgh.  It's a great park and really nice to hike and bike.  Here follows a homage of pictures I've taken through the seasons.

Leaving from Cumberland, Maryland

Exiting the Paw Paw Tunnel


At Hancock, Maryland

Along the Canal and through the woods

Some locks still work

Around Mile 40

Locks 2 and 3 in Georgetown

The Ignoble End

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Biking the GAP and C&O

I picked up biking 20 years ago after an accident that stopped my running (which I began in 1978 after drinking beer on the Arkansas River).  Washington, DC is a great place for it with lots of trails of varying distances.  Rock Creek is my favorite.  Several years ago I did the C&O Canal from Cumberland to DC, 180 miles in three days.  Sixty miles in one day is pretty much my limit.  I could go more I guess if my life depended upon it but otherwise not.

When I got back from East Timor and read that the bike trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland - the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) - was now complete, I decided I'd have to try the whole thing back to DC.  This week I did it.  The trail goes through beautiful countryside and towns still struggling to recover from the loss of industry.  The trails followed the routes used for transport between east and west for almost two hundred years of American expansion, industry, agriculture and commerce.  The grade is train, and biker, friendly and the trail uses former train trestles and tunnels.  The trains still run but the goods come from everywhere but there.  The communities along the way have taken to varying degrees to the bikers.  There are bed & breakfasts along the way (and down-home eating too).  It was rivers, woods and the heartland.  A real adventure.

Here follows my daily record and some photos:

May 20: Nice ride, sunny but not too hot. The first several miles were paved trail and streets. I got lost in McKeesport but used my GAP app map to reorient myself and get back to the right path. On the way, saw a beautiful shiny black snake sunning himself on the asphalt, a jumping chipmunk, trains whistling, lots of chungalolos, people canoeing and floating down the Youghiogheny River and Sunday bikers and hikers. The trail, once it reached the old rail bed, ran next to the river and was easy to bike. Didn't really feel like uphill. My double padded seat worked well but my butt still was sore that last ten miles.

After checking in, went to the corner tavern and had an ice cold Bud (on tap) and watched a bit of the Pirates vs Tigers game. Then next door for a slice of pizza. Just spent the last half hour chatting with the nice lady (from Mt Lebanon) who does most of the work for their B&B while her husband mans the reservation desk. She was ironing.

Connellsville on a Monday evening is not much of a place. Wendy's for dinner tonight.

May 21: This is train country. The rail lines follow the river. Last night in Connellsville, they whistled and trundled on through all night, though not a problem for me. I love trains and the sound of trains. They kept me company most of the way to Myersdale and when I entered town, one followed me right in and passed though the middle of town. Reminds me that America still runs on rails.

On the way today, got rained on a bit but Andy's big purple poncho got me through dry if a bit muddy. (I was able to wash my bike when I got to the B&B.)  The Yough is a beautiful river with lots of rapids as it ascends into the mountains.   Passed through Ohiopyle, where we used to go when we were students at Pitt for the natural water slide and running rapids. Never dreamed I'd bike there.

Today I passed scads of scampering chipmunks, a box turtle, billion year old rock formations, outbursts of flowers, and lots of mountain laurel (not blooming yet).

Today was 56 miles and my butt again hurt the last twenty. Tomorrow will be a shorter but spectacular ride.

May 22: Shorter but nice way to complete the GAP. Had a nice breakfast in Myersdale after a night of getting woken and lulled back to sleep by the passing trains. The whistle woke me, the clickity clack sent me back to slumber.

Today the trail followed the river as it became a stream, a creek and finally a group of trickles lost in the moutains. The rail followed until the mountain got just too big. Then the ancient line that became the trail just punched through Savage Mountain. The trail passed over the Easter Continental Divide and then 3300 feet in the tunnel.

On the way passed by the first deer I saw and through wild roses. All along the way the air was delicious. The wild flowers, the deep green smell of the forest and just good clean mountain air. Today it was also honeysuckle and wild roses.

No rain today and even some sun. Tomorrow may be different.

Right now, nursing my second IPA sitting outside in downtown Cumberland.

May 23: Set off from Cumberland in fog this morning but turned out a good ride. No rain and though the trail was a bit wet in places, it was quite bikeable.  

Leaving Cumberland I saw a beautiful beaver duck into the bush. The air was heavy with honey suckle, quite intoxicating. Saw turtles, rabbits and deer along the trail and at one point a pair of crazy kamikaze squirrels jumped me. (No injuries to anyone.) 

The canal took all shapes, with water and without, and sometimes just became something else.  The C&O stopped functioning in 1924. Was being built 100 years before. The most interesting part of the day was walking my bike through the 3118 foot long Paw Paw tunnel built by 1848 to take the canal through a mountain. It is unlit and completely dark in the middle. There is a guard rail but it was kinda spooky walking when you can't see your feet. 

For the last 10 miles, I took a paved rail trail (WMRT) that runs on the other side of the canal. That was a treat. But not as good as the coconut cream pie at Weavers. One reason bikers take long trips is so they can eat pie!

May 24: The ride today was a bit tough. Started with a flat tire just outside of Hancock.  Had a spare tube so it only took me 15 minutes to get underway again. Then I got a bit lost trying to get from the rail trail back to the canal. But the real thing was that it was longer and wetter today. Lots of puddles I just had to go through. 

But a good ride nevertheless. Spoke to another biker camping his way from DC to Pittsburgh and back. He warned me the trail south of Harpers Ferry was really muddy. Also a local guy walking his dog. We wound up trading stories of how we almost drowned in rivers, while watching the Potomac flow by.

Saw turtles, rabbits, deer and chubby little groundhogs. Also squirrels, one of whom looked liked he wanted to bushwhack me. Instead of running away from the big thing on wheels, he ran in front of me to cut me off. Didn't let him bully me though. I rang my bell and pushed on.

Not much honeysuckle today but something that smelled like musky vanilla. Weather forecast aside, no rain but evening thunder now.

After dinner this evening, spoke with a visiting Austrian family that came to Harpers Ferry because the husband saw a picture of the view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah and liked it.  Also with a young Mennonite couple from Illinois who once lived in Belize. We talked produce, including why we can't get good tomatoes.

May 25: Back to DC, having gone 330 miles in six days. Left Harpers Ferry after a good night sleep – the trains provided their music again – and a hearty breakfast. Spoke with a couple from Seattle that was doing Cleveland to Washington and told them about the W&OD trail. If the C&O was as muddy today as yesterday, I'd switch over at mile 35 and take the ferry. The trail was even muddier – it rained during the night – and I did cross at Whites Ferry. The “Gen. Jubal Early” is the last of the ferries once used to cross the Potomac. Cost two bucks for bikes. I didn't even bid the C&O farewell.

I needed to go five miles on Rt 15 to Leesburg, Virginia to pick up the trail. Plus, it's paved. Negative, it is hilly. I seemed to be running out of gas by Hearndon (mile 20) but revived after a stop at my favorite bakery. By the time I left the W&OD for the way across the river and up the last hill, I was powering through.

On the way I saw a big fat groundhog, deer and a little toad sitting on the yellow line on the W&OD. One thing I did not mention yet but were with me all the time were the birds. Always singing in the woods. Their colors always striking against the green, especially the cardinals and bluebirds.

BTW, I finally figured out why the squirrels were attacking me. As they saw this big thing bearing down on them – I averaged 10 mph – they didn't think to run off the path into the bush but to escape by running down the path in front of the advancing danger. As I got closer, they turned to the next level of defense which is offense. But I'm smarter than a squirrel so eventually figured this out. I started ringing my bell as soon as I saw them up ahead and then they'd simply scatter into the trees. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The 70's and the “Arab Spring”

Ok, I'm over 60 and listen to some music my loved ones call “moldy.” But I like to think that much of the music of the 70s holds up well. Anyway, in addition to the indie and alternative music my son and friends at ATG keep me current with, I still play that moldy stuff.

Much of 70's music – and for my purposes here that means the period from around 1968 to 78 – is just music, meant to entertain, get you “up” or help you get high. But two strains have had me thinking recently because they seem to pinpoint something that changed early on in the decade, something that maybe points to a broader dynamic we can see playing out in the recent “Arab Spring” and on the streets of American cities.

The first of the 70's music broke over the happy silliness of Beatlemania. It took rock and folk and added drugs to produce the psychedelic movement with Jefferson Airplane and then the Grateful Dead. The Beatles themselves started it with "Magical Mystical Tour." But while this and much else of the time was just escapism – not to denigrate such fun – the strain that I'm focused on here was the music of protest and revolution. In the aftermath of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and in the middle of the Vietnam war movement, songs like “What About Me” by Quicksilver Messenger Service (1970) addressed the issues of pollution, war, repression, the 99% but also looked forward to change through confronting the forces of authority challenging them – “what you going to do about me?” Other songs of the period looked forward to just jumping over the mess of this world in the post-apocalyptic “Wooden Ships” (Jefferson Airplane & CS&N, 1969) or by hijacking a starship (Jefferson Starship's "Blows Against the Empire," 1970). Whether it was confronting the man or escaping him, this music looked toward a better future, a fundamental re-ordering of society.

But by 1972, disappointment, alienation and a sense of loss had already begun to set in, despite the fact that we would shortly be seeing the first seeming accomplishments of the “attack” against the old order. Richard Nixon would be forced to take us out of the Vietnam War (the Paris Peace Accords, 1973) and himself would be forced from office (1974). I was at a CSN&Y concert in Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City on the night of August 8, 1974. One of the group came out to explain a slight delay by informing us all “it's over,” Nixon had resigned. Music and fireworks celebrated this “victory.”

But The Who, sensing that maybe it would not be so easy, announced in “Won't Get Fooled Again” (1971) that after the “fighting in the streets” our team on the left would now be our team on the right. Jackson Browne was asking in “Doctor My Eyes” (1972) if perhaps we had already seen too much without anything really getting any better? Pink Floyd was suggesting that maybe it was all really about money and that anyone who doubted it was living on the "Dark Side of the Moon" (1973).  Jethro Tull – Ian Anderson always seeming to be bitingly aware of how real life disappoints our dreams – noted how each day was like “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” (1974) and, in “OneWhite Duck” (1975), that something must be wrong in our brains if we were “so patently unrewarding.”

By 1977, Jackson Browne was “Running on Empty” and the year later, Jefferson Starship began its transformation into pop. Most of the supergroups fell apart in a haze of booze and drugs. Everyone else went to work. And the Fall of Nixon led to the two hapless president – Ford and Carter – and then in 1980, the “return of the repressed” victory of Barry Goldwater in the form of Ronald Reagan.

The hopes and dreams of the 70s were real and so was the movement on the streets. We – and I am taking some liberties here including myself in this – did remove a president and end a war. But the hopes that any of this would really change anything fundamental or in some way make our daily lives “better” or “happier” were not realized.

We've seen in the past year new movements in the streets, toppling governments and challenging the economic order. The experience of the 70s reminds that the push for real change leads to reaction; the harder the push, the greater the reaction. Society is, by evolution, a essentially conservative adaptation. The force of inertia fights against any change of direction. But the movement of the Arab Spring is more powerful than anything we experienced in the 70s because it is more necessary, more mass based. The Occupy movement is more informed by history than we were in the 70s. And it is so much clearer now, and in so many ways, that the world we live in has serious problems that don't seem to be getting better on their own, by business as usual.

Leaving the last word to Neil Young, who remained sideways hopeful despite everything we've seen since the 70's, keep on rockin in the Free World.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Biking at the Speed of Light

Took a long bike ride yesterday from Northwest Washington to Needwood Lake in Rockville.  Fifty miles round-trip in just over four hours.  On the way back, it occurred to me that after a certain point, time had been suspended for me.  Each moment was part of the next and the whole ride was as one unified experience, one moment in time.  Each point I had passed was "just now" no matter how many miles had speed under my wheels since.

This doesn't happen on my shorter bike rides but seems to kick in after 15 miles or so.  Einstein explained that at the speed of light, time stops.  It had stopped for me at a considerably slower pace.

Maybe this is how to unify quantum physics and relativity?  For quantum physics, reality is subjective in the sense that its many possibilities don't become one thing until observed.  Einstein thought of his science as objective.  The speed of light is the same everywhere, independent of the observer.  But time is experienced subjectively.  It passes slow or fast depending on how we feel it.  And biking at our speed of light can suspend our experience of time entirely.  Time too doesn't become anything specific until we observe it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Our Three-headed Beast - Divided US Leadership

The New Yorker of March 19 has an interesting piece - The Unpersuaded by Ezra Klein - that looks at whether Presidential speeches make any difference.  He finds that they do, in a negative way.  When President's talk about things they support or want to do, they engender partisan resistance to that very thing among the opposition.  What helps a President achieve his agenda is a strong enough economy to help him win re-election and his party to gain enough seats to gain/maintain control of Congress.  This may always have been true but seems more so over the last few decades.

Drawing from political scientist Juan Linz, Klein writes that our form of presidential democracy is not common.  And for good reason.  "A broad tendency toward instability and partisan conflict is woven into the fabric of a political system in which a democratically elected executive can come from one party and a democratically elected legislature from another.  Both sides end up having control over some levers of power, a claim to be carrying out the will of the public, and incentives that point in opposite directions."  Parties no longer moderate this tendency in our American system because they have been transformed from "big tents" to groups operating as "disciplined, consistent units."  With party rigidity, the President becomes a polarizing figure rather than a persuader.

In other words, we have a system in which the parliamentary leaders - Speaker and Senate majority leader - and the executive can form a three-headed beast instead of a coherent government.  Time for change?  Time for a constitutional convention?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Changing the US Constitution: Some Suggestions

Wrote late last year about the Articles of Confederation and the possibility of working through the states to call a constitutional convention according to Article 5. This would mean seeking and supporting candidates for state legislatures whose sole purpose would be to have their state call on Congress to call such a convention – an “Occupy the Constitution” movement to allow us to assemble, debate and decide on draft amendments while enjoying our Tea. It's only fair, therefore, for me to outline a few of the ways I think we might use the amendment process to change the way our government works and make it more responsive to the majority.

Simplicity in representative government may be best – a one-house Congress elected for four years choosing a Prime Minister with a ceremonial President. Whatever party wins the majority gets to implement the policies it was democratically chosen to enact. But the USA may be too big and complex to give so much power to any one institution. The Founding Fathers may have been on to something when they provided for checks-and-balances. For checks and balances, I would not touch the Supreme Court much. But it might also do to re-invigorate the role of the states both to decentralize power and to provide some degree of check-and-balance at the federal level. Here's my suggestions:

  • Increase the size of the House of Representatives to allow for greater and more diverse membership and points of view. Article One, Section 2 says the number of representatives “shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.” Congress changed this by law in the 1920s to fix the number at 435. One for every 30,000 would now mean some 10,000 representatives. That seems much. But why not 1000?
  • Elect the House for four year terms so its members can do something other than campaign all the time.
  • Allow the House to choose the Prime Minister. He/she would be head of government, commander-in-chief and choose the cabinet and senior government officials (including ambassadors), assuming the powers contained in Section 2 of Article 2 without the need to seek advice and consent.
  • The House would originate all bills and approve all treaties, assuming all the functions and limitations contained in Sections 7, 8 and 9 of Article 1.
  • No commitment of US troops abroad for any time and any purpose would be possible without a majority vote in the House specifying the duration and terms.
  • Repeal the 17th Amendment on popular election of the Senate. Make senators appointed by state legislatures to two year terms. Senators would represent the States at the federal level.
  • The Senate would have the authority by majority vote to reject laws and treaties passed by the House. The House could overcome the veto by a 60% vote. (We want to have checks and balances without completely tying the hands of the majority.)
  • Members of the Supreme Court would be nominated by the Prime Minister and approved by majority vote of the Senate to serve single terms of 15 or 20 years.
  • The President would be chosen by the House and be confined to being the ceremonial head of state. (Or we could abolish the office altogether.)
  • Congressional campaign funding would be limited to public sources – money collected by the national treasury and doled out equally to candidates gaining sufficient support through local petitions – and individual contributions limited to some modest amount, say $200.

It might be good as well to take a hard look at the proliferation of government departments. We might grandfather State, Treasury and War – the first created – as well as Justice. But some of the others may be doing things better left to the states or society?