Courage and Liberty

I must admit that I was a troubled upon reading that residents of several states will soon need to bring their passports in addition to their driver’s licenses with them to board domestic flights, starting in 2018.  I was troubled, but I was not surprised.

There was simply no reason to be surprised.  The Real ID act was signed into law more than a decade ago.  It was, apparently, passed in response to the fact that many of the 9/11 hijackers boarded their planes using fake ID’s.  That terrorist event was also the trigger for the creation of our very own KGB…which is more or less the same acronym as the DHS.  (KGB translates roughly as Committee of State Security, in case you didn’t know…a pretty close equivalence to the Department of Homeland Security).  Of course, we’d already long had the NSA, which acronym has a similar meaning, but its efforts and activities have typically been far more clandestine and less overtly intrusive than those of the DHS (though troubling, nonetheless). Continue reading “Courage and Liberty”

Against “cultural appropriation.”

I recently read an article that was written in response to a conflict between two professional athletes about the nature, the problem, and even the hierarchy, of “cultural appropriation.”  My thoughts upon reading about this frankly ludicrous conflict were basically the same as my general reaction to all accusations of “cultural appropriation,” and they are more or less as follows:

“Congratulations!  You are clearly and irrefutably safe.  Indeed, you are clearly and irrefutably among the safest creatures ever to grace the surface of this hazardous planet.  You have adequate, clean water, you have abundant food, you have superb shelter, you have protection from predators, from attackers, and from invasion, and you have a lifestyle that provides you such abundant and luxurious free time that you can invent problems about which to be outraged.” Continue reading “Against “cultural appropriation.””

Adulation and congratulations to Kip Thorne and his Nobel co-recipients for their confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves

Kip_Thorne_at_Caltech
Professor Kip Thorne of Caltech

I just wanted to write a brief posting about how delighted I was to learn that Kip Thorne was one of the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for physics this year, for his part in the long-awaited confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves.

I’ve been a fan of Professor Thorne’s for more than two decades now (roughly), and have long regretted that he wasn’t more of a public figure, though that’s probably by his own choice.  I first heard of him in the post-script to one of the episodes of the original “Cosmos,” (added when the series was re-shown on TBS).  In that post-script, Carl Sagan mentioned that when he was writing his novel “Contact,” he wanted to ascertain if there was a legitimate, scientifically valid way for a sufficiently advanced race to travel great distances through space in reasonable lengths of time.  The person he asked, he said, was Kip Thorne, and it was Kip Thorne who gave him the information he used to create his worm-hole-using alien race in the book.*

If memory serves, Carl Sagan also mentioned that Kip Thorne had written a science book for popular consumption, called “Black Holes and Time Warps.”  (You can find it here on Amazon.)  The next time I was at a book store—probably Borders, my favorite book store, the loss of which has been a source of bitter heartache to me—I found a copy and bought it.

I have rarely been so pleased with a science book.  If you’re interested in a wonderful, thorough, but well-explained treatment of some of the more extreme aspects of General Relativity, I can’t recommend anything more highly.  Even Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have not produced anything better (that I have read) on this subject, and if you know me, you know that’s high praise indeed.  This is one of those books that, when you read it, makes you feel brilliant.  This is because the author understands his subject so well that he can convey it in absolutely clear terms, illustrating it literally and figuratively so that these mind-warping (and space-warping) concepts make perfect sense.

Congratulations to Professor Thorne, and to his co-recipients for the recognition of their work on gravitational waves.  I remember that, when I first heard about the LIGO observatory, some years ago, and how it worked, I thought, “But wait, won’t the lasers and the space they pass through be compressed and stretched by gravitational waves exactly the same amount?  Won’t that negate the measurable effects of the waves and make the laser interferometry wash out?”  Obviously, this was not a question that wouldn’t have occurred to the people creating the observatory, and they knew why it wouldn’t be a problem, or at least not an insurmountable one.  I wish I’d thought to ask someone in the know when the question occurred to me.  I wish I’d known whom to ask (certainly at that time I could not have asked Professor Thorne himself, though nowadays he could probably be reached through Facebook or Twitter).

Anyway, I was more than happy to have my own dubiety (is that a real word?) smashed when the announcement was made that the waves had been detected, and then again, and now again, only within the past few months.  It’s not astonishing quite in the same way as when I first heard of the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating (Wow, what an excellent, world-changing surprise that was!), but in other ways it’s just as awe-inspiring.  We (the human race) are on the leading edge of a whole new era of astronomy, one that could someday let us peer back past the last scattering surface that produced the CMB and catch glimpses of a time ever closer to the Big Bang.

I get chills.  Seriously.

So, despite all the other, horrible news, of disasters both natural and man-made, that we’ve all had to endure over recent days and weeks, we should take heart in the knowledge that knowledge is possible, and that, however easy it is to destroy things, the power to learn, the power to create knowledge, and thence to create new prosperity, is clearly much stronger.  If it were not, civilization would long since have been destroyed.

These are the sorts of thoughts that people like Professor Kip Thorne inspire in me…and I tend to be a gloomy person by nature.  Congratulations, Professor Thorne, and congratulations also to Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish, Kip Thorne’s co-recipients.  It’s people like you who help keep life worth living for people like me.


*Kip Thorne was also responsible for the bits of the movie “Interstellar” that were actually scientifically accurate, and he certainly cannot be blamed for any departures from legitimate scientific realism one finds therein.

My response to a misguided Facebook video (and the subsequent silly statements by the President).

I wrote this posting originally in response to a video that I saw on Facebook (see above), shared by someone I know.  The letter reproduced in it pushed my buttons rather firmly, as someone who loves the ideas of America, rather than loving symbols or songs, flags or anthems.  I had long held off on posting it, though, because I thought maybe I was overreacting, and in any case, I’d written “The Idolatry of the American Flag,” which covered much of the same ground.  However, given the President’s absurd remarks about the NFL, and the many well-intentioned but foolish people following the above-quoted gentleman down the mindless patriotism rabbit hole, I decided it was worth saying everything again. Continue reading “My response to a misguided Facebook video (and the subsequent silly statements by the President).”

Depression Can Be Powerful

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

-Kris Kristofferson

 

There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve sometimes noticed, wherein I find myself not exactly welcoming bouts of depression, but feeling as if they are normal for me—more truly me than other states of being.  There’s a dark familiarity that’s difficult to explain, along with a sense that my mind is in some ways clearer, saner, when depressed than it is at other times.  Certainly, my concentration often improves when I’m depressed.  I’m less easily distracted, whether by good things or bad things; it’s a curious phenomenon.

It’s vastly preferable to anxiety, but I’ve mostly gotten past that over time—having lost one’s career, one’s health, and one’s family, and having spent a few years in Florida State Prison, will tend to make other social concerns seem petty and trivial by comparison.  Similarly, fear of pain, and even of death, can be significantly blunted after having gone through enough grief—when one has felt physical and emotional agony that has led one not merely to lose one’s fear of death, but to wish for it, many things lose their ability to intimidate.  The greatest fear can then be simply that the pain will continue, that this life will not end.  But even that loses its urgency over time, and the pain becomes familiar.

This doesn’t seem to be a universal occurrence, as the many heartbreaking cases of PTSD make clear, but it’s also surely not unique to me.  There’s no doubt an accumulation of various life events, interacting with the baseline neurology and physiology of the individual, that leads to some people being hardened by circumstance, and others being eroded or destroyed by it.  Which one of these is so in one’s own case can, of course, be difficult to tell, even from within.  Even if we accept as a truism Nietzsche’s claim that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” it is no doubt a fact that some things simply kill us slowly.

Anyway, it’s just an interesting fact that often when I’m depressed, I feel sharper, more clear-headed.  There’s some data indicating that those with a history of depression are more realistic in their assessment of their own abilities, and of reality in general, than people not prone to depression.  I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.  It’s not that depressed people are more pessimistic in general—though when in the grip of a full-fledged episode, many undoubtedly are—but that they simply evaluate reality more objectively, more accurately, more scientifically.

It may be that taking the blinders of comforting illusion away leads to a truer and more potent understanding of reality, even if it can sometimes nudge one towards despair.  Darwin’s “Devil’s Chaplain” has a sometimes-horrifying sermon to deliver on the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” but even such a nature has grandeur and beauty.  Its beauty may be all the greater because it does not exist in reference to mere human concerns; rather, our concerns are subordinate to and contingent upon it, and are altogether trivial.

It’s not that the universe wants to destroy us, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has been heard to say in a playful tone (for if the universe really wished to destroy us, we would be destroyed); rather, it’s that the universe does not care about us one way or the other.

There is freedom in this, but as with all freedom, there is responsibility, and the recognition that one’s fate is in one’s own hands, to save or damn oneself and, possibly, the Earth.

Another benefit of the feeling of depression—no doubt part and parcel of the force that eliminates some forms of fear—is the urgency it takes away from mere happenstance.

The Tao Te Ching says that, if you accept death with your whole heart, you will hold nothing back from life (or words to that effect).  I’m not sure that’s always true; sometimes accepting death can simply lead to apathy.  But apathy can be a form of freedom, too.  As long as it’s a position not born of denial, but rather of acceptance, it seems a morally defensible stance, if not one that I want to embrace.

Having accepted that one will inevitably lose everything can be freeing.  This is especially so if one has already lost nearly everything that one ever placed real value upon, and come out the other side and realized that one has lived through it—and that one could do so again.  One comes to the realization that one is not deeply or profoundly afraid of losing anything, nor even of losing everything.  “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.”

I would take this one step farther.  Not only do damaged people know they can survive; they know that ultimately they will not survive, nor will anyone else.  Far from being crippling, this knowledge can be the removal of an onerous burden.  Knowledge that we are ephemeral makes life more precious than if it were eternal, but it also takes a lot of the pressure off.  The circumstances of one day, or even one life, are just not all that crucial in the scheme of things.  It’s okay if you fuck up from time to time.  Indeed, it’s okay if you’ve fucked up your entire life.  It’s not a permanent mistake.

That’s some of the freedom, the familiarity, and the perverse comfort that depression sometimes brings me.  It has its costs and its miseries—more or less by definition—but it has power, too.

The Idolatry of the American Flag (read by me)

Given the brouhaha over the President’s denigration of football players who kneel during the national anthem, and the players’ and owners’ (generally) mature and measured responses, I thought I would try my hand at reading my own article about a related subject.

The audio is here: