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It is Always Now
Wise words from American neuroscientist and author, Sam Harris.

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Thinking…Ugh, it's so hard!

In a series of lectures on The Hindrances to Good Citizenship given by James Bryce at Yale University in 1909, he said that the unwillingness of people to think is a real danger to democracy. James Bryce was a British historian, diplomat and ambassador to the U.S. from 1907 to 1913.

If a person cannot tell the difference between true and false information, between sound and unsound reasoning, that person cannot vote intelligently.

Individualism is the driving force of democracy and the irony is that individuals who are uninformed are highly susceptible to manipulation by a strongly opinionated, extremist, minority; the individuals themselves are destructive to democracy.

James Bryce identifies three qualities which are needed for good citizenship: Intelligence, Self-Control, and Conscience.

Thinking is hard, you have to reflect, reason, compare, weigh before you come to a conclusion and decide what to do.

Faulty thinking is easier and quicker. Reasoning without facts, children will draw hasty conclusions without knowledge of facts or too few facts.

Another factor that contributes to faulty thinking is the inability to discern between authorities. When a distinguished actor speaks about acting, he speaks with authority on this topic; but when he speaks on science or health, he is no longer an authority. His opinion on these subjects is worth no more than any other person.

Logical fallacies are errors in the reasoning process. What we know is based on generalizations, when generalizations are based on many findings, they are likely to be sound. But if generalizations are based on a few findings, then you’re jumping to conclusions.

Confusion of cause and effect is another fallacy. The effect of lower employment, is the cause immigration or has globalization and technology shifted employment worldwide?

One of the easiest faults in reason is misusing statistics. “Figures do not lie, but liars do figure” is an old saying.

Clear thinking is a learning process, as James Bryce has said “Three-fourths of the mistakes a man makes are made because he does not really know what he thinks he knows.


Painting by Norman Rockwell, Election Day, 1944
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Ignorance is Not Cool !

President Barack Obama on Anti-intellectualism

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On Truth and Bullshit

American philosopher and professor, Harry Frankfurt in 2005 wrote a short book called “On Bullshit”, it became a best seller. In the book, he distinguishes bullshit from lying and asks Why there is so much bullshit.

His insights have never been more important than they are today.

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Archaeology

British poet, W.H. Auden (1907 – 1973), was a leading literary figure of the 20th century. Known for his ability to write poems in every verse form, they ranged in style from ballads to limericks, haiku to villanelles. As well, the content of his poems ranged, from contemporary clichés to philosophical meditations.

Auden published about four hundred poems. In haiku form, Archaeology, was W.H. Auden’s last completed poem, about introspection and timelessness, two recurring themes in his life.

The poem uses archaeology and science as the methods man tries to find truth and meaning, but we only get glimpses, the rest we infer. The search and journey begins with the mind but ends with the timeless human spirit.

Archaeology - W. H. Auden, 1973

The archaeologist's spade
delves into dwellings
vacancied long ago,

unearthing evidence
of life-ways no one
would dream of leading now,

concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove:
the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,
but guessing is always
more fun than knowing.

We do know that Man,
from fear or affection,
has always graved His dead.

What disastered a city,
volcanic effusion,
fluvial outrage,

or a human horde,
agog for slaves and glory,
is visually patent,

and we're pretty sure that,
as soon as places were built,
their rulers,

though gluttoned on sex
and blanded by flattery,
must often have yawned.

But do grain-pits signify
a year of famine?
Where a coin-series

peters out, should we infer
some major catastrophe?
Maybe. Maybe.

From murals and statues
we get a glimpse of what
the Old Ones bowed down to,

but cannot conceit
in what situations they blushed
or shrugged their shoulders.

Poets have learned us their myths,
but just how did They take them?
That's a stumper.

When Norsemen heard thunder,
did they seriously believe
Thor was hammering?

No, I'd say: I'd swear
that men have always lounged in myths
as Tall Stories,

that their real earnest
has been to grant excuses
for ritual actions.

Only in rites
can we renounce our oddities
and be truly entired.

Not that all rites
should be equally fonded:
some are abominable.

There's nothing the Crucified
would like less
than butchery to appease Him.

CODA

From Archaeology
one moral, at least, may be drawn,
to wit, that all

our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,

being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.




Photo: George Platt Lynes
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Spark By Reason

He was a man with a scrawny physical presence, but Immanuel Kant was Mr. Personality.

Filled with thoughts and ideas, wit and humour, joy and cheerfulness, his lectures were standing room only, not just to students but to the public. He was a rock star and the attraction was his brilliance of mind.

Born in 1724, Kant lived his entire life in the city of his birth, Königsberg, Prussia. He lived a routine, uneventful life, never venturing more than a few kilometers from his home. But Immanuel Kant is regarded as the pivotal mind that revolutionized thinking. For centuries, people thought a certain way, he steered thinking to new directions. His ideas danced and he has long been regarded as the coolest of philosophers since the ancient Greeks.

His time was the enlightenment, a period in history when thought was governed by the emergence of science and reason. Kant wanted to replace religious authority with the authority of reason, to work out how we ought to live.

According to Kant, what matters about an action is its intention. The outcome is irrelevant. If you happened to help an elderly lady across the road and rushed her to avoid an oncoming car, she becomes injured, you are not to blame as your intentions were good.

Kant divided our guiding principles into two ways of thinking: a hypothetical imperative and a categorical imperative.

A hypothetical imperative tells you what to do if you want to achieve a certain goal; to achieve B, do A.

If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t kill; if you don’t want to get caught, don’t steal; if you want to be trusted, don’t lie.

A categorical imperative, in contrast, is simply, do A; don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie.

For Kant, genuine moral principles tell us what we should do, regardless of outcome or consequence. He believed that human beings are rational and free, our choice is precisely why we can be held morally responsible for what we do.

Kant wanted to strengthen our reasonable nature and to overcome our inborn weaknesses.

Uneventful, though his life may be, he lived a rich life, an exciting adventure of the mind.

Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe … the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804)
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SHEro

Marie Curie was the first woman in history to be a professor at the Sorbonne. It was November 5, 1906, her first lecture was to begin at one-thirty, by noon, several hundred had gathered in front of the iron gates of the Sorbonne. When the gates opened, the crowd rushed in, reporters, photographers, French celebrities, fashionable women and even some students. In five minutes, the physics amphitheatre was packed, it was standing room only. An enormous ovation greeted her as she entered.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, in fact, two Nobel Prizes, one in 1903 for physics and the other in 1911 for chemistry. Together with her husband Pierre Curie, their efforts led to the discovery of the elements polonium (Po) and radium (Ra).

Although Marie Curie lived most of her life in France, she was born in Warsaw in 1867.

Always a brilliant student, Marie wanted to study science at the University of Warsaw, but Polish universities did not accept females. If she wanted to study, she had to go abroad, to Paris, where the famous Sorbonne University admitted female students.

Marie Sklodowska was 24 when she went to Paris to study physics and mathematics in 1891.

She completed her master's degree in physics in 1893 and completed another the following year in mathematics. Soon after, she met and married Pierre Curie in 1895, they had two daughters.

It has been 123 years since Marie Curie completed her degree in physics. 

Today, article after article, study after study explore why women are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women generally make up about 20% of the workforce in STEM, while in most other professions there is a gender balance.

There are various arguments for why so few women pursue STEM: lack of strong female role models, popular culture Barbie stereotypes, even hostility or exclusion from their male peers.

There is no better female role model than Marie Curie. There needs only be one. She blazed the path through the male scientific establishment. Her work is proof that science is meritocratic. The scientific community has reverence for whoever captures imagination, regardless of gender.

Could it be, that the under-representation of women in STEM, maybe, just maybe a choice of interest? 

In the west, the educational opportunities are there, they have been there for decades but most women are choosing other career paths. Of importance is that opportunities are open, to both genders. 

It’s a choice. It’s their choice, even if they choose not to.


Photo: The Marie Curie Amphitheatre, The Sorbonne, Paris
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Gravitational Waves

100 years ago, Albert Einstein mathematically predicted the existence of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space and time. 

One hundred years later, 1000 physicists with a pair of gigantic instruments called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), sensed a wave that stretched space making the Earth expand and contract by 1/100,000 of a nanometer, the width of an atomic nucleus. 

The detection of gravitational waves confirms Albert Einstein’s ideas and will open up new ways of exploring the cosmos. 

This exciting discovery follows in the path Albert Einstein blazed 100 years ago. The imagination of the human mind is astounding.

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Architect of Snow

Ralph Waldo Emerson remains one of the most widely read American authors. His writings on nature strike emotional chords that move readers, even more so today.

His poem The Snow Storm, through nature, Emerson conveys his philosophy of the transcendental spirit.

Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement in New England in the 1830’s that thrived for about twenty-five years.

The idea flourished during a period in American history marked by expansion and change, with increasing political and social polarization.

The transcendentalists operated from the notion that the society around them was deficient. The ideas embraced a more intuitive way of thinking, less rational but more in touch with our senses. It was a composite of ideas of the Enlightenment and spiritual beliefs; German romanticism and idealism with Asian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Transcendentalism revolutionized and stimulated the spirit and thought of the times. A poetic experience of being at one with nature was an inner transcendence, and it is the individual’s inner response that determines his way of living and thinking.

The poem describes the creative force of nature to construct wonderful wind-sculpted snowscapes. This invisible force is the architect that transforms and illuminates, an endeavour unachievable by humans.

The first stanza describes the snowstorm as it stops activity and forces people inside their houses. The second stanza, Emerson leads the reader outside to enjoy the transformative splendor created by the snowstorm.

Emerson saw the special bond between nature and the human capacity to rejoice in it.

The Snow-Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
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Everyday
Driving by this farm yesterday triggered a memory. This scene reminded me of Norwegian poet Olav Hauge’s beautiful words. I stopped and took a picture.

Everyday by Olav Hauge

You've left the big storms
behind you now.
You didn't ask then
why you were born,
where you came from, where you were going to,
you were just there in the storm,
in the fire.
But it's possible to live
in the everyday as well,
in the grey quiet day,
set potatoes, rake leaves,
carry brushwood.
There's so much to think about here in the world,
one life is not enough for it all.
After work you can fry bacon
and read Chinese poems.
Old Laertes cut briars,
dug round his fig trees,
and let the heroes fight on at Troy.
                  Translation by Robin Fulton

Kvardag

Dei store stormane
har du attum deg.
Då spurde du ikkje
kvi du var til,
kvar du kom frå eller kvar du gjekk,
du berre var i stormen,
var i elden.
Men det gjeng an å leve
i kvardagen òg,
den grå stille dagen,
setja potetor, raka lauv
og bera ris,
det er so mangt å tenkje på her i verdi,
eit manneliv strekk ikkje til.
Etter strævet kan du steikja flesk
og lesa kinesiske vers.
Gamle Laertes skar klunger
og grov um fiketrei,
og let heltane slåst ved Troja.
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