Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Johann Sebastion Bach's amazing diversity of styles

I may have created the impression in my last post that I think music has to be dark and/or tragic to be deep and profound. This is not the case, not at all. The music of J. S. Bach, far and away my favorite composer, is often quite joyous and profound at the same time. To give just a few examples out of a great many: the 1st and 3rd movements of the Italian "concerto (in spite of the title, a solo keyboard work, often played on the piano today), the Prelude in E major from the unaccompanied violin partita in E major (often played quite effectively on the classical guitar also), many of the movements from the Goldberg Variations, and the opening chorus of the cantata "Wachtet Auf". Now, to be sure, many of his works are dark, indeed, "Gothic", almost in the modern sense of the word. A popular example would be the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor---a piece that has been used in horror movies, and is in the German organ tradition that Bach acquired partly from the great Herr Dietrich Buxtehude.
Examples of tragic pieces abound in Bach's output. Examples would be a significant portion of the Chaconne, also for solo violin, and portions of the St. Matthew Passion.
Then there are abstract pieces, which are perhaps also highly emotional and esthetically appealing to those of us with mathematical orientations, such as the Art of the Fugue, The Musical Offering, and a significant fraction of the Well Tempered Clavier. Some of this latter class of works could almost be heard as being contemporary, 20th century music.
As Kenneth Clark has pointed out in his celebrated "Civilization" program, Bach's art was "religious art", and it is probably helpful to understand some of Bach's Lutheran theology (but not necessarily to share in his beliefs) to fully appreciate his music. Maybe not mandatory---I like to think it is not---but likely it enhances the rapport to some degree.
However, it was notable, and surprising to some, that Richard Dawkins, today a prominent atheist, listed the St. Matthew Passion as the one work he would want to listen to if he could only take one to a deserted island. I might pick that too, only I would hate to have to pick only one work....could I maybe take a thousand?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Music from behind the Moon, from James Branch Cabell

James Branch Cabell wrote a seemingly little known work that passionately describes the aching that some of us feel for music that is strange, deep, otherworldly, and perhaps, to some extent, “dark”. “The Music from Behind the Moon” is a short story, which is a portion of a larger book called “The Witch Woman”. It concerns the quest of a bard, Madoc, to find the source of the “skirling” music of Etarre the witch woman that is all “a doubtfulness and a discontent”. Madoc is described as a skilled musician that plays upon a bronze harp, and sings beautifully. He is popular in the courts and with the heads of the regime in which he lives. However, he knows in his heart that his music is really nothing, that it just delivers to these followers of his art what they want to hear to feel, namely that everything is right in their world. He is tormented by the memory of Etarre’s music, which he once heard, but now has lost. The courtly, “patriotic” music that he plays and sings makes the courtiers feel that their country is the best that has ever been, but Madoc feels that such nationalistic fervor is delusional, that one’s country is an “insignificant pimple in the pages of history” from a more enlightened perspective. Only Etarre’s music will satisfy the yearning that he feels for something deeper and stranger, and he pursues it relentlessly.
This short work of Cabell’s is really a fable, and, in addition to beautifully making poignant observations about depth in music, also illuminates aspects of romantic love. Indeed, this work is, I believe, part of a series of books he has written which he describes as “woman worship”. Ironically, in this very same story, he also makes some moving comments about death and human mortality.
Let me add here before moving on to other examples that I love Cabell’s elegant style which involves, somehow, the ability to use whimsical humor and irony to evoke feelings of wonder, and often to make observations about life. Only he and Lord Dunsany, in my experience, seemed to be able to do this.
Two other works come to mind that present a related idea to the above: H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zahn”, and a French film “Tous les Matins du Monde”.
In the Lovecraft work, a short story that has been realized in short films that can be found on Youtube, a rather troubled and impoverished student of metaphysics takes a room in a desolate and unchartered area of a city, and he so happens to be in a room immediately below a most odd musical genius, a fiddler, Erich Zahn. He cannot help but hear the strange unearthly music from his room, and, as with Madoc, the student is obsessed with the weird music of Zahn and aggressively pursues hearing it from closer quarters. Zahn himself turns out to be a wildly tortured old man, and seems to be driven by something not of this world. I will not give away more of the story here, but just note that Lovecraft admirably captures the itch that so many of us have for the romantically strange (a desire that pervades a great deal of Lovecraft’s fiction).
In the film mentioned above, the main character is a viola da gamba player and composer, an actual historical musician in the 16th century named St. Colombe, who writes and plays music that is dark, somber, brooding, etc. The young gambist that comes to him for lessons soon becomes seduced by the desire for facile fame and the pompous music of the courts. Perhaps the same kind of music that Madoc had to play---only the young student does not seem to hear the “skirling music that is a “doubtfulness and a discontent”. Even as the student begins to achieve renown, Colombe scolds him for “playing music for kings”, and at another time destroys the student’s instrument in disgust by bashing it against the hard floor. Painful, to be sure, for us musicians, but it makes the point.These three works of art thus have the common theme of showing how the deepest music is not usually the music that is popular, and often not the music that makes us simply “feel good and complacent”. There are many among us that yearn for the transcendent in music, even if it involves elements of tragedy. Of the three works mentioned here, for me, only the Cabell story is profoundly moving. But the other two, the Lovecraft short and the film, are memorable, capture truths about music, and provide a degree of validation for those of us who find ourselves defending our tastes for “darkness” in music and the arts in general.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

More about "concealed ovulation"

Apropos of my previous entry: I just found a paper on the internet, albeit not a very recent one, that seems to hypothesize that the reason that ovulation is concealed from the female herself is indeed what I conjectured in my previous post (prehistoric women that avoided sex during fertile periods tended to be supplanted in the gene pool by those for whom ovulation was concealed). The article is titled "The Evolution of Concealed Ovulation", by Nancy Burley, and appears in the journal The American Naturalist, December 1979. Note that this paper was published almost 30 years ago, and it would seem that there has been adequate time to examine this hypothesis, and perhaps it has been largely rejected by evolutionary biologists. However, it is interesting that the Burley paper refers to, but apparently rejects, the Noonan-Alexander hypothesis (also 1979) cited by Linden in his book (see the previous post for the reference), so both hypotheses have been around about the same length of time.
So.......I continue to wonder, what is the current best theory among biologists to explain this feature of human biology. Anyone?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Evolutionary Puzzle of Concealed Ovulation

Comments on The Accidental Mind, by David J. Linden

I am fascinated by this excellent book. It deals with how the brain, especially the mind, has evolved, and emphasizes that the brain is not an efficiently designed gizmo. Rather, he arguer that it is a serendipitous kludge put together willy-nilly through many diverse evolutionary steps, with many subsystems inefficiently built on top of each other. It is a tightly argued book, and makes good cases for explaining how brain evolution gives rise to a wide range of human behaviors and emotions (love, memory, dreams, and God, as stated on the cover).
However, one argument he makes leaves me puzzled. He discusses, on page 149, the question “why do humans have concealed ovulation and recreational sex?”. This is, seemingly, two different questions, is it not? The first part, about concealed ovulation, is very interesting to speculate on from the perspective of evolution. The second part of the question though seems to me to be not a weighty one. For isn’t the obvious answer that it is fun and feels good? Don’t all animals, in a sense, engage in recreational sex? No animal, as far as I can tell, does it because it is intentionally going about the business of procreating. Now, that of course is the effect of it, and in fact why nature has made it feel good. If it didn’t, an animal would be disinclined to perform the act, and its genes would not be in the gene pool. So it seems to me. I am a simple layman in this area, so I could be way off base here, and maybe not fully understanding some subtlety in the question.
Let me turn to the first part of the question, that about concealed ovulation. He presents a hypothesis to answer this, attributed to Noonan and Alexander of the University of Michigan. This hypothesis is that concealed ovulation evolved as a means of keeping the male around. Reasonable sounding, as one can see that from a game theory perspective that if ovulation were evident to a male, he might leave upon having sex with an ovulating female to have impregnate another female. Since he is not sure, and he doesn’t want to take a chance that any offspring that the first women has are in fact from another male, he sticks around. He does not want to waste resources raising another males offspring (which would not propagate his genes). Presumably, a male sticking around does, according to this explanation, tend to increase the chances of the woman’s offspring surviving and passing on her genes. Amusing if this is true: maybe this is an indication that we males are good for something after all.
We must quickly add though that male usefulness may not follow as being true today. A protective male could have been much more useful in prehistoric times to provide protection against invaders, predators, and other violent enemies.
But it is not so clear to me that this hypothesis makes sense from a “selfish gene” point of view (the Richard Dawkins book of that name makes perfect sense to me, so I look at everything about evolution from that perspective). It seems to involve assuming that a given male consciously wants to maximize his genes representation in the gene pool, doesn’t it? And as I said above, it seems to me that all animals, including humans, engage in sexual activity because of the pleasure it brings. Putting ones genes into the gene pool, i.e., procreating, is a byproduct from the animal’s point of view.
The other thing that bothers me is that this Noonan-Alexander hypothesis only seems to explain why ovulation is hidden from the male. It is not clear that it explains why it is hidden from the female as well, who will have, presumably, a more nuanced sense of what her body is doing that an external male would have.
Why, I wonder, do people not consider what seems to me to be a more simple explanation of concealed ovulation? Namely this: humans have gradually evolved conceptual knowledge of consequences, or “cause and effect”, and must have long ago (in prehistoric times) figured out that the sex act could result in babies. Perhaps, once a woman knew that to be the case, she would be more inclined to abstain from sex when she was aware that she was ovulating. If she did abstain, she would be able to enjoy all the “recreational sex” she wanted, but she would less likely to be impregnated. To be sure, there have no doubt been times when a woman wanted to have children, but it is easy to imagine that babies could have been a severe burden at many times in human history. Hence, on this view, the woman that somehow mutated a tendency to conceal the fertile times could give rise to more offspring than would a woman that avoided sex when she knew she was ovulating. The latter type of woman would be gradually supplanted in the gene pool, and women with concealed ovulation would thrive.
I seem to recall that in one of the many books I have read on “evolutionary biology” that this theory of mine has been considered by others and soundly rejected. If anyone can enlighten me as to exactly why it is faulty, I would be most grateful.
Note: There is a wikipedia entry on "concealed ovulation", but it does not discuss why it evolved. It does point out that some other mammals, such as rhesus monkeys, have it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Skeptical Reflections on Religious Belief…Part 1

Based on personal associations and numerous conversations with religious, church-going people, over the course of my 65 years of life, it seems to me that relatively few of them believe their religion to be actually true. The tendency is to believe it useful, either as way to make one feel secure, or often as a belief that the social ethics demand some measure of lip service to a superhuman, moral code-giving being. Maybe a strong element of hope, usually for a continued existence after death, enters in. I say this at some risk of stating what many skeptics might regard as obviously true. However, let us recognize, right off, that a given religion is either true or false. We cannot, of course, know by the methods of scientific inquiry whether they are true…if one of them is in fact true, I suppose we may find out “later” (upon death).
I’ll lay my cards on the table here, and say that my strong suspicion is that they are all, in essence, false. There might be elements of truth to some or even all of them, but I am speaking here of taking any particular one of them as a whole.
I am an American, born and raised in what might be called “Christian bible belt” regions of the US, so I will also confess to having a limited perspective on all of this. I have had very limited direct social exposure to people of the Islamic persuasion, and here have to rely on what I have read. I have had slightly more exposure to those of the Judaic faith, but considerably more to those within the various Christian sects. Indeed, as a child, I was raised Presbyterian, but rather quickly, in my formative years of college, rejected it all as being largely delusional.
I have no quarrel with those who believe their religion to be true. I will refer to these as “Type 1”, or simply T1, believers, while the ones basing their association on tradition and/or usefulness, I will call “Type 2” (T2) believers. My guess is that T1’s are not the ones committing the atrocities, terror, and wars (recently so thoroughly illuminated and expounded upon by such writers of an atheistic persuasion such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins).
An important element in the faith of many people is the ethnic or family tradition associated with their particular religion. We can scarcely doubt this, can we?---just look at the world. Is it a coincidence that those raised in Christian countries are Christian, etc etc? This group-tribe-family-clan association with a particular belief, a given tradition that one is born into, has surely been a predominant factor throughout all of human and perhaps pre-human history.
It is easy to regard those of a different tradition are somehow strange, bizarre, odd, less good and wholesome than those of ones own tribal belief. Compounding this is the fact that often the religions are associated with groups of humans having recognizably different anatomical features, making it easier to view each other as less intrinsically important, or worthy of being allowed to live in peace. We humans have a very strong inclination to be “group-ish”, a phenomena well investigated by Matt Ridley in his book “The Origins of Human Virtue”, and this groupishness has bad consequences in more global contexts.
Does a T1 really want to kill or injure someone who believes a different religion? I very much doubt it. It is the T2’s, driven mainly by group identity and an atavistic hatred for groups that are recognizably “other”, that gravitate toward violence.
One very strong hint that, in the US at least, Christian T1’s are rare is that death seems to be widely lamented as tragic. Yet Christianity seems to promise, for the “good” believers at least, a blissful post-death existence. Do people grieve because they fear their lost loved one has gone to Hell? I doubt it, though maybe this is occasionally the case. Rather, I imagine, they really hold a deep-down fear that the departed loved one has ceased to exist. In effect, they are “T2’s”.
We often see books of a Christian persuasion asking “Why do bad things [e.g., death from cancer or accident] happen to good [usually read “Christian”] people”. But, come on---if death is a release from this “vale of tears” and fallen world, as they seem to maintain that it is----would they not rejoice at the “good people” being “rescued” from it? The simple explanation for this excessive lamenting—and I of course do not blame them from my point of view, since I think it quite possible that death is non-existence---is that they do not really believe, with their whole hearts, the eschatological teachings of their religion. Yep---T2’s!
Now to be fair, I recall that a Christian philosopher—it may have been Scott Peck---said that he “believed” Christianity [and Heaven] to be true, but did not “know” it to be true. An interesting, and perhaps valid, distinction. We could digress here, and consider what “belief” means, and what “knowing” means, but I shall postpone it.
I also want to draw a sharp distinction between belief in any of the world’s religions, and a suspicion that “there is something behind the universe”. Indeed, the old question “Why is there something rather than nothing” seems to me to be at least a justified emotion, albeit a question that we cannot answer by methods of science (or any other method that I can think of). It does not follow that it is a meaningless question, but I realize I need more space to establish this, and will also postpone that for now. My guess is that there is “something”, but whatever it is as far beyond our comprehension as general relativity is beyond a dog or cat. Is there any kind of continued, post death, existence?---I do not know. Do I hope there is? I am really not sure of that, especially since I cannot really imagine what form that might take. And as Woody Allen has the fantastically advanced alien say, in hurriedly departing in his spacecraft, “we may be asking the wrong questions”, but we may not be able to even comprehend what questions we should be asking.
This is “to be continued” in a later post.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On the short stories of Lord Dunsany

Many of the fantasy short stories of Lord Dunsany, written in the early 20th century, evoke a certain odd flavor, an atmosphere of magic, somehow child-like in perspective, but at the same time sophisticated and droll. He had the unusual ability to combine humor with seriousness. I always get the feeling that the humor is rather in the spirit of saying, with a wink to the comprehending reader, "You and I know this is serious, and full of wonder....but we need to act as if we mean it in fun, lest we embarrass ourselves to those who do not believe in, or understand, the wonderful tales of old". Something like that anyway. As I think Ursala K LeGuin has somewhere pointed out, Dunsany (along with James Branch Cabell), was able to use humor without undercutting the sense of wonder.
Dunsany almost never used dialogue in his stories, choosing instead his own characteristic way of paraphrasing what a character said or thought. Many have said that he was long on style, but short on plot, and this is probably true. But it is irrelevant to what we might find special in his works. He was really more of a poet. The vantage point is often that of the small child who maybe thinks that the world is flat, that rainbows are other-worldly, and that amazingly different beings and creatures of faery dwell just over the next hill, or over the horizon. Many realists will probably find his stories silly, but, according to LeGuin, Dunsany has a widespread appeal to scientists. Oddly, Dunsany was apparently fascinated by technology--in contrast to, say, Tolkein and Lewis who seemed to evince "Luddite"-like distrust of it.
Today, most people you meet do not seem to have even heard of Dunsany, even though a web search will turn up sites written by a great many enthusiasts. H. P. Lovecraft was an adorer of Dunsany's work, calling it "crystalline singing prose", and himself went through an early phase where he imitated the style. Arthur C. Clark considered the last pages of The Charwoman's Shadow as the most beautiful and sadly nostalgic ever written. Philosopher Martin Gardner is also a Dunsany lover, and titled one of his books after a Dunsany phrase, "The Night is Large and Full of Wonder".
Those who want an epic fantasy, such as Lord of the Rings, will probably want to look elsewhere. As will those, I think, who want deep and subtle characterization, for it is largely absent in Dunsany's fantasy work. By the way, Dunsay also wrote plays of a more realistic nature, which were rather more well known in the mid 20th century. For example, I recall that the main character in Sinclair Lewis's novel Main Street, a culturally ambitious woman named Carol, living in the small town of Gopher, Minnesota, organizes a production of one of Dunsany's plays.
He wrote two fantasy novels, The King of Elfland's Daughter, and The Charwoman's Shadow. Both contain some beautiful passages, but tend to be a bit hard to get into.
My favorites are his short stories. I especially love "The Last Journey of the King", "The Ebb and Flow", "The Sword of Welleran", "Blagdross", "The Kith of the Elf-folk", and "The Three Sailor's Gambit". This last one is a quite amusing chess tale (Dunsany was a chess master, one of the highest ranked in Ireland at the time, I believe), but also contains many poetical passages.
"The Last Journey of the King" is a heart breaker, and concerns an aging king inquiring of his bevy of wise men what awaits him in the after-life. They each have their own versions to tell him, and each tale is of astonishing and soul wrenching beauty. There is always a thread of cynicism toward worldly things running through Dunsany's stories, and "The Kith of the Elf-folk" contains a heady dose of it while remaining gloriously poetical. The central character is a small marsh elf who has a go at being human with a "soul", but decides to go back to its Elvin existence in the end. His cynicism toward worldly pursuits comes out in "Blagdross", where he makes the poignant observation that sometimes, upon "seeing gold", people grow larger in their bodies while shrinking in their soul. I think will few dispute that, but none can put it so marvelously.

Christianity Useful or True? A seeming contradiction.

More often than not, it would seem to me, people don’t discuss Christianity in terms of its truth or falsity as such. Rather, they seem to assume that the issue is one of merely social convention. That is to say, they seem to assume it false, but then want to debate its usefulness nevertheless. I doubt if they would consciously admit to that, but perhaps it is somehow assumed under the conscious surface as the starting point.
That would be an odd attitude, in my view. If Christianity is false, then “to hell” with its usefulness---who wants to live a lie? (maybe this is the point that escapes me however---maybe most people feel deep down that the best strategy is to convince themselves at some conscious level of the truth of a comforting and personally rewarding religion, and then ignore any arguments against it, at least at a conscious level). I believe we can detect a sort of “double standard” here, which reinforces my suspicion that Christianity is not really as fully believed as would be expected based on church attendance or church affiliation. This particular religion involves the promise and the belief that this world is somehow, in some sense, fallen, and that a much better world (“Heaven”) potentially awaits those who qualify it (what exactly “qualify” means here is a topic that we must defer, because interpretations of Christianity by the various sects, denominations, and theologians, differ greatly---some argue that only a tiny fraction of humanity will go on to this greater reality, while at the other end, some argue that all will be “saved”, and enjoy a wonderful, everlasting, paradise.). But, in my experience, Christians still seem to mourn and grieve over the death of loved ones and friends, as if their death is a horrible thing. If they truly believed they had escaped this earthly quagmire of moral decay, and were enjoying infinite bliss at home with God, then they would rejoice (though perhaps still allowing some sadness because they missed the departed, much as an inmate of a concentration camp might view the escape his friend into freedom. He would miss the companionship of his friend, but would rejoice that at least he was now free).

An attempt at a new "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road" joke

Unbeknownst to many historians, Henry David Thoreau propounded for many years a theory that the chicken, rather than the dog, was mankind’s true best friend. Thoreau had a pet chicken that for years was quite loyal to him, and would help fix dinner, perform chores, and would loudly cluck to drive away robbers. Thoreau wrote many pamphlets arguing his odd theory, which were predictably, for the most part, ignored. His pet chicken was very dear to him, but one day things began to change. The chicken seemed to begin to resent Thoreau, and little by little began to grow estranged from him. It finally came to this, that the chicken actually helped some robbers break into Thoreau’s house. Thoreau, heartbroken, had no choice but to give him away—but the question remains to this day: “Why did the chicken cross Thoreau?”

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Some thoughts on Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit

Notes on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkein):
This is perhaps the most extensive and vast fantasy ever created. It is certainly the most popular of all time. But its reputation is well deserved. Beautiful, but at the same time remote and sad. As C. S. Lewis said, “good beyond hope”.
Though Tolkein claimed he hated allegory, one could argue (at the risk of provoking his “ring rath”) that it is present in “loose” form. It seems to me to be a sort of Christian story, with the biblical pattern and fragments shuffled around in a kind of collage. At any rate, many Christian principles are evoked, at least seemingly so (to this agnostic). But it is certainly not strict allegory. Tolkein himself stresses its “applicability” to his world view, and criticized the critics for ignoring the theological aspects.
But all of this is really, in a sense, irrelevant. The work stands on its own. To read it, for a LOTR lover, is to seemingly leave this world and step into this unique one, Middle Earth, which to my mind is like no other. It also seems we are stepping into a real history, in the middle somewhere, and there is a sadness that is like nothing I have ever experienced in the elves, but at the same time it is passionately beautiful. A religion could be made out of the experience of reading this book, and I am not so sure that in a way it hasn’t.
There is coziness aplenty, and boy do I love that. There is at times a bitterness that never leaves my mouth--such as when Frodo encounters the creepy shadow king on Weathertop. And Moria contains some of the stuff of nightmares, even without the unbearable battle of Gandalf with the Balrog. And come on now--who can fail to think of the Christian Gospel’s account of Jesus’s resurrection when Gandalf reappears and at first the fellowship fails to recognize his “risen” body.
There is terror, there is implied violence, there is love of nature, love of a journey (especially by foot).
There are notable absences: there is no sex (except indirectly with Goldberry, who does excite my own fantasies of a different sort).
Some may be offended at the rather traditional treatment of women here--there are no warrior women, at least not until a fairly brief scene with E__ in the last book (where she dresses up like a man and slays a Nazgul).
Aragorn appears to be fashioned after King Arthur to some extent. The Hobbits remind me in some ways of the Hebrews, although I think Tolkein also considers himself, presumably of Nordic and/or Anglo-Saxon ancestry, to be akin to these folk.
The Hobbit and LOTR are quite different in tone and in scope, although people often assume, and arguably rightly, that the Hobbit is a sort of prelude to LOTR. Certainly the stories are linked, but The Hobbit seems like it is in the fairy tale tradition, whereas LOTR is epic.
Some friends of mine once quit reading the Hobbit about half way though claiming that it was depressing. I can actually understand that--the strange remoteness of it could easily create a feeling even in me akin to depression. The combination of humor (as when the dwarves show up at Bilbo’s home with Gandalf near the start) and tragedy come close to doing this for me. Similar to Dorothy finding herself among the “cute” munchkins in Oz, when she has been abandoned to the tornado by her Guardian aunt and uncle...
Critics who pick on flaws in Tolkein’s style miss the point. Maybe they are right as far as that goes. I am sure it could be argued he is stylistically imitative in places. But never mind. He takes us to a strange and strongly flavored world, eternally remote form this one while at the same time applicable to it, and no matter that his style is not the standard modern style (of Hemingway, or Henry Miller, or James Joyce.)

What’s wrong with a minimum wage law?

What’s wrong with a minimum wage law (MWL)?:
Let me begin by saying that my objection to a MWL is NOT based on a subjective desire to prevent workers from improving their material lot by increasing their earnings. Quite the opposite, in fact, though this may not be clear on the surface. Surely all people of good will towards fellow men will rejoice if everyone’s lot is improved. But a more detailed analysis is required to determine whether a MWL can really do that. Also, one must consider whether such a law is consistent with “the proper role of the state” in a free society.
This law is wrong-headed on a number of levels. At the highest, most general level, it sets the bad precedent that the government should get involved in transactions and interactions between “consenting parties”. This objection to a MWL, stated thus, should appeal to the modern “liberal”, i.e., left-winger”, as it has long been recognized by most people of that camp that the government has no business getting involved in private interactions between consensual parties. This is of course usually argued in a sexual context. And I agree, that it is a valid principal in that context. But it should be carried further and applied to all cases involving mutual consent among citizens. Once it has been established that the government does have such a role to interfere, then it opens the gates for gradual osmosis into other areas. Hence, I maintain that it should not be within the role of the state to regulate wages (or prices).
There are other practical difficulties with any MWL. One is that it tends to render a certain low-income worker unemployed. Why? Well, look at it this way: in a purely free market system, we can imagine that there is a large spread in the perceived value of workers. Some workers are perceived by employers as being “high risk”, in the sense that they are untrained, with a dubious, or at least un-established, level of responsibility and dependability. An employer operating with a very narrow profit margin might be inclined to take a chance with this type of risky worker if the “price is right”. That is, low enough that the employer can still operate in the black. Let us call such a worker X, and the mutually agreed upon (low) rate r. Further suppose that there is a worker Y that is more responsible and with more established performance record. Suppose Y will only work if for rate q, where q > r. Now a MWL is enacted, stipulating that the employer must pay at or above a pay rate p, where p > r but p ~ q. Then the employer will have to choose between the following alternatives:
Paying X at a rate p, which is more than he deems he is worth (possibly having to cut back any other employee fringe benefits or reduce working conditions, and/or raising the prices of his goods and services)
Hiring Y, figuring that if he has to pay the rate p ~ q, then he might at least get an employee that he deems to be worth that rate (but to maintain operating “in the black” he might try to raise the price of his goods or services).
Deciding to close up shop, because he needs the help but cannot afford to pay the rate required by the MWL
Deciding to try to stay in business, but to limp along without a helper

Note that in 3 of these 4 cases, X loses out because he does not get the job. Now if we postulate that the unemployment rate in Y’s category is zero, then the second alternative may not happen, because all of the Y-types are already making their market rate, p ~ y. In practice, the y class is never fully employed. Furthermore, even if it is, alternatives 3 and 4 still involve leaving X unemployed. And we must assume that X would be happier being employed at the rate r that is below the MW than he is unemployed with the MWL in place.
The often-heard argument that “everyone has a right to a living wage” is naive and untenable for several reasons, one of them being the above reason, that the MWL cannot guarantee that worker X in fact has a job. Other reasons come to mind:
There is no constitutional right to “being paid a living wage”. A cursory reading of the “founding fathers” will show that this is not what was meant by the right to the pursuit of happiness…this phrase was penned in an era where slavery and active suppression by violence was a reality in much of the world (as it still is today)
Who, in any case, would determine what a living wage is? Surely this differs from person to person. Living at what level? Subsistence, or at a level where one can afford a TV and a nice car?
Many people that work for wages in the r regime are not, I believe, primary wage earners for a family; rather they are teenagers earning discretionary income, or retirees working just to keep a foot in the goings on of society. Some are, to be sure, and taking a job at rate r is still preferable to no job. They may have to take two jobs at rate r…it’s a tough world, not to sound callous. The job might be a gateway to a higher salary, once they establish that they help the employer’s business flourish. For once proven, they would be attractive to competitor’s, who might hire the employee away at an increased salary, and a raise would be in the offing to prevent that.
A MWL cannot easily prevent an employer from making trade off in employee benefits or working conditions. Any attempt to try to prevent such trade offs would increase the government bureaucracy and associated government overhead even more, thus contributing to inflation, deficit spending, etc. This eventually hurts everyone in the society.
It can further contribute to employers outsourcing jobs overseas, where the MWL cannot be applied.
The legislated increase in wages will tend to be passed on to consumers, who may choose to reduce their patronage of the employer’s business, thus eventually driving the business under, thus resulting in the loss of X’s job.
A MWL will tend to hit smaller “mom and pop” businesses more than it will the large corporations, because the latter can more easily cope by adjusting other factors, such as fringe benefits. The M&P businesses will not be able to do this. Thus the MWL hastens the depressing trend toward chains taking over in all areas of commerce (restaurants, hardware stores, drugstores, etc).
By increasing the level of unemployment of workers of type X, crime is probably encouraged and increased. Gang-related activity is encouraged by the large number of unemployed people (sadly, youth from underprivileged neighborhoods).

Deism-Theism-Agnosticism-Atheism (Part 1)

There is much hub bub these days about the spate of books extolling atheism. Specifically, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I very much like these books, and can go along with them for the most part. But not entirely. I call myself an "agnostic", and though I think all of these books plausibly attack that position as weak and to some extent cowardly, I want to hold to that label. I think it is justified, and believe that I can defend it..
To believe that it is justified, one might ask if there is any reason at all to say that you don't know whether something exists when there are no clear reasons for thinking that it does exist. The "it" in this case is a God, a set of gods, or a Deity...some kind of being or beings that in some way brought about the Universe.
First consider the "Deist" position. This was I believe held by Thomas Jefferson and others during that era we call "The Enlightenment". The idea is that there was some agency, or God, that designed and created the universe---but after doing so, he backed off from it, set back, and did not interfere with it. In particular, such a position rejects the organized religions, and the Abrahamic religions, and usually argues that the Creative Being does not concern Itself/Himself/Herself/Themselves with the doings of humanity.
The theist position, by contrast, adds to the Deist creation idea with the postulate that the Creative Being does continue to interact with the world, in particular, with the goings on of the human race. The Abrahamic religions would be, of course, theistic religions. Examples of such interactions might be selected "miracles", the dictating of certain rules or codes of conduct (e.g., The Ten Commandments), the Incarnation of Christianity, and so forth.
While I can not say that I subscribe to either of these positions, Deism or Theism, I do not agree that there are absolutely no reasons for considering the beliefs to be plausible.
I want to give two examples. One is the evidence, admittedly weak, for Theism. The other is somewhat stronger, to my mind, arguing for Deism.
The Deistic argument first, and I will here be very brief, hoping to enlarge upon this in a later post. This is based on the observation that the universe not only exists---itself a bizarre and vertigo-producing fact---but also that physics seems to suggest that the fundamental laws and parameters of the universe seem to be fine tuned to allow life and consciousness to form. Furthermore, the prevailing theory that the whole thing started with what is called the "Big Bang" seems to suggest that something started it. I know, of course, that there are alternative theories here to Deism---the parallel universes and such. But common sense---dubious in this context, it must be admitted--- seems to that the whole thing was created and designed by someone or something. There is no element here for me of "faith" at all, rather it is just a sort of intuitive feeeling. And I honestly don't know if the modern "Design" argument is very convincing to others, as there is some subjective judgement here.
The other argument, the one for Theism, is I admit much weaker, and much more subjective. This is based on art and music that has been inspired by one particular theistic religion, namely Christianity. The music, in particular, seems to me to be inspired beyond human capability. I think especially of the music of Bach, Palestrina, Handel, and Victoria. There are of course many others, but Bach stands out above all the rest, in my estimation. As I have said, this is a weak argument, but nevertheless it has some weight with me.

What are "rights"?

One might inquire as to what exactly we mean by "rights" in a political sense. It is tricky, but I think some progress can be made if we recognize that people today use the word to refer to two distinct notions: "negative rights", and "positive rights". The former concept refers to limits on what can be done to you, while the latter pertains to what must be given to you. It seems to me that the political recognition of "negative rights" is consistent, while the implementation of "positive rights" is not. The reason is that no one has to provide "negative rights", others simply have to let you live your life as you choose (as long as your choice is not to violate their negative rights). Positive rights, by contrast, require a provider on the other end, and this may involve violating their "negative rights", since it puts a burden on them, and requires that they are not strictly free to pursue their lives as they see fit.
Examples of negative rights: you have a right to not be forcibly attacked, injured, or killed; to be enslaved; to be forced by the state to give your property of goods to others (unless of course you are defaulting on an agreed upon trade), or to be forced to associate with designated other groups of people.
Now, I want to emphasize that voluntarily giving property or money to others in need is in most cases a great virtue, and should be done. However, the state should not require it.
Examples of positive rights: the right to a job, the right to a "living wage", the right to be allowed in a private club. These all require that someone else, who is not bothering you, must provide some good or service to you. I do not see how it can be consistently argued that such rights must be vouchsafed in a free society.
I recognize that this post seems perhaps overly simplistic, and not thoroughly fleshed out, but I thought it useful to heuristically introduce the concepts into my blog.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Some of the Big Questions. Amenable to being answered by Science?

The Big Questions
1. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a universe, or why anything at all? Wouldn’t one expect the “lowest energy state” to be simply “nothing”?
2. Is there a God or gods, or anything agency of beings responsible for the universe? Where did they come from? If there can be such beings that are uncaused and eternal, couldn’t it just as well be the universe that is that.
3. What started life on Earth? Did it arise spontaneously, without any “supernatural” involvement? Has it arisen elsewhere in the universe?
4. Did Consciousness evolve through natural selection, or is there something “supernatural” about it? Can we humans engineer conscious systems (robots, computers, spacecraft, etc)? How would we ever know if such a fabricated entity was conscious?
5. Do we humans, or any conscious entities in the Universe, have free will? But how can it even be defined or understood, since all systems seem to be either hardware caused, software program caused, or randomly driven?
6. Do humans, or any animals in the universe, have any kind of life beyond the natural one? If so, what is the nature and duration of such a post life existence? Is there any external purpose to existence, or, perhaps as honest common sense would suggest, is the animal life all there is?

It is interesting to consider which of these questions the methods of Science might be able to answer. I am inclined to think that only #3 is amenable to being answered by Science. Some might add that #4 is, but I doubt it. The reason for my skepticism has to do with how consciousness is by its very nature a subjective experience. We use “Occam’s Razor” (the simplest explanation of something) to infer the Consciousness of other humans, but that will not work for other “platforms” or artificial systems.The other questions we cannot know the answers to (although of course we cannot stop speculating about them, and even having our own opinions and beliefs about them).

Some fun speculation on "life after death" and other eschatological issues

We must have all wondered at some time or other whether there is some kind of “life after death”. Well, on that topic (“eschatology” I believe it is called in theology) I would like to undertake a little bit of fun speculation, nowhere even close to being exhaustive, of course, but I hope any that might read this will find it interesting (and perhaps might stimulate any such reader to add more ideas and variations).
Is it necessarily eternal? It is usually assumed to be so, but what if instead it is finite? What if “eternal darkness” (non-being, or utter annihilation) then follows that? Or, what if there is an after life to that, and so on? These might go on forever, or a length we might arrive a final one that is either eternal or of finite duration.
What if, as Farmer brilliantly explores in Riverworld fantasy/science fiction series of novels, there is an after life, but it has been technologically produced? (this seems related to physicist Frank Tipler’s “Omega Point” philosophy also)? Or what if this world is some kind of simulation, or video game, where the "pawns" (us) are conscious?
What if Christianity is largely true, but God is finite, or just one of many Gods, or is somehow just in a hierarchal chain of Gods? Perhaps He is infinite, but is still in the middle of a hierarchy, as we believe infinities can have different orders.
What if we are God or gods, somehow fragmented into billions of entities for the sake of enjoyment in experiencing life? Though not the usual interpretation, this could kind of jive with the "Son of man" term Jesus used. Maybe, in this view, after death we are reabsorbed into “The One”, but can still remember all of our individual lives.
What if the above is true, but it is a final kind of thing, for maybe eternal life as a single entity was boring, and this is the swan song of existence? What if it is some kind of punishment, where a great supernatural entity had to be fragmented and incarnate in a tangible world for some duration?
What if we are all really only one being, somehow “partitioned” to actually experience the life of everyone, ultimate reality being somehow outside of time? This is rather like Wheeler's idea with there only being a single electron that is scattered forwards and backward in time to create the impression that there are ~10^90 electrons in the universe a given time even though in a sense it is all the same one.
What if each of us really lives in his own separate universe?--a kind of combining of solipsism with the branching many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The others in each persons own branch are "dummies", that actually do have their own universe. In Bob's universe, Bill is not real, and vice versa. Or it can be made even more complex, where Bill in Bob's universe is coupled to the Bill in Bill's universe in a very complex indirect way.
What if we are some kind of ranch animal, being put out to pasture by either a supernatural agency or an alien civilization of this tangible universe? This might be like the way we keep sheep for their wool or cows for dairy products. For example, what if it is art that Man produces? Maybe after producing art over some time interval, Man will be destroyed (or even eaten or consumed in some manner, as we might cattle or sheep) and the art will be taken by the gods for their amusement or enjoyment. Or maybe it is only enjoyed by them in real time, like a play (as in Russell's opening to A Free Man's Worship"), where once it is over that's all there is; the art dies with Man. Or maybe the Universe is to find those spirits which can produce art, and they are kept alive in some manner. This prolonged life might be of finite or of infinite duration (seemingly finite if the ranchers are tangible, however). There are other possibilities besides art: what if it is war, or sporting events, that these gods or aliens like to see. Maybe we are a sort of enormous gladiator arena for the cruel amusement of bloodthirsty gods (in some ways, this would seem to be the perspective in Greek mythology).
What if there is a supernatural realm, but it is empty, i.e., unoccupied. Perhaps it has never been occupied, or possibly it has been but the gods have left it or died (or have become us). Perhaps it is waiting for us, either as gods returning, or as newly made ones--in a way, the Christian religion seems to be a variant of this (except it doesn't say the supernatural realm is empty), where it seems to be maintained that man (or some subset of them) will be made gods through "The Christ."
What if Man is “Satan”? This is perhaps consistent with the Christian view. Perhaps the Christian mythos of the fallen angel really involves Man collectively. Or perhaps there was a fallen created being, perhaps an "angel" Satan, and he was fragmented into smaller divided entities.
There is a whole array of possibilities along these lines: that Man is some intermediary that will give rise to something higher. This is the kind of thing often explored in the works of science fiction, especially Arthur C. Clarke. The something higher may be a development of man (as in Clarke's 2001), or it may be another unrelated entity or race altogether (perhaps involving the eventual disposal of humanity as no longer needed once its midwife role is done). Consider the robots preparing the world of Rama for the Ramans in Rendezvous with Rama--we may be like that for a race-to-be, or for a race that periodically appears, or awakens to some mode of existence. Perhaps we are creating this higher form of life in the direction we are taking with computers, as a silicon based life form. Or perhaps this is only the practice drill, and a later--and better--form of life will evolve from man's technology. In this view, in the spirit of this exercise in speculation, I am suggesting it not be an accident that man produces these, but rather the unfolding of a plan.
Related to this is another class of possibilities involving the earth as a giant organism, that perhaps man is serving or helping to fully create. The Internet comes to mind. Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell also, where he argues that the earth is like a giant cell. The "Gaia Principle", much beloved of the New Age set also enters our minds here. Of course, the idea of man as a kind of cancer or malignancy arises also.
Another rich, if dubious idea, centers around that of “reincarnation”, perhaps through other galaxies in this universe, or in parallel universes. But I will postpone exploration of that for a later time.

Political libertarianism in a nutshell

The Libertarian view is that the institution of government, or “the State”, only exists to secure/promote/protect the rights of the individual. Anything else, even if it seems to be a good thing that government is in a position to do, should be considered to not be the proper role of the government, and should not be undertaken by it. Hence the State is a sort of "necessary evil" in the sense that life without it would be really bad; the criminal would be free to kill you or take your property or make you a slave without such an agency. Hence it is in the interest of every individual to have a rights-protecting agency, and an implicit contract exists even though you have never signed anything and even though there has never been a stateless realm (i.e., a "state of nature").
Note that most political philosophy today has not even considered this view. The thinking seems to be that a person gives up a lot of his freedom when he lives within a political boundary and then must do what the majority votes on in the polls.
It would seem that today in our country, many or even most people vote for what political proposals are perceived to benefit them directly, not on what they think is right, in the sense of what the proper role of the State is (and what its limitations should be). This is very short sighted, if nothing else.

More on the free will vs determinism issue

Let me say right off that I assume that we do, somehow, inexplicably, have free will. That is, I assume in practice that we do have it, while admitting at the same time that it is very hard to avoid the philosophical conclusion that we are determined.
I believe that we must assume that people have some spark of it, and I think we all do assume this in practice, even those philosophers who deny free will. For who, otherwise, than a rational being who is “free” to change his mind, are they trying to convince when they argue about it? We can retort to the determinist, “You are just saying that (the argument for determinism) because you have to!” If they think that I, for example, am “determined”, then isn’t all argument, and attempting to convince me futile? But of course, they can say they can’t help trying to convince me, that of course it is futile, but they can’t help saying it, just as I can’t help responding as I did, and so on and so forth--it all degenerates into an endless sequences of determined thoughts, and is hence totally absurd. Hard core determinism makes such a mockery and absurdity of everything. Isn’t it simpler to just postulate that we don’t know how it can be, but there is some spark inside of each of us that is free (but acknowledging that, sure, most of everyone’s behavior is probably determined by blind forces).
The problem with this, though, is that it seems to be very hard to even imagine how any behavior at all, even a “spark”, can be “free”. Consider this: a “system” can perform an “act” (using the term very broadly to refer not only to physically observable actions, but to thoughts as well, even when they are not spoken or otherwise observable by another party) from three basic causes: (1) something has been stored in the systems “memory” from past history (related to “nurture”, or experiences), (2) something was in the system from time “t = 0” (e.g., “nature” or genetic cause), or (3) a random causation mechanism is at work. The first would be what we would call “learned behavior”, and would seem to be well represented by imaging the system as a computer that is programmed, and has its data base built up from, what experiences the system has. Without allowing any element of free will to it, it is thus simply passively scooping up such experiences and data, and cannot be blamed for anything (note that free will seems inherent in the concept of blame--”ought implies can”). The second refers to what might be called “hard wired” data and data bases. The system (the person) inherits this from conception, and hence there can be no free will involved here. To make an analogy with a personal computer, there is some software wired into the basic machine when the user receive it, and some software is added to the computer during its useful life (only there it is added by the user, whereas in our argument it is added by the world/environment around it as it has experiences. There would seem to be no reasonable objection to some behavior being random (such as might be generated by a random number generator, even though this could be argued to be deterministic at base), but this is clearly not what the free will advocate wants as escaping from determinism. So in a nutshell, behavior seems to be exhausted by saying it stems from past experiences, genetic makeup, and random fluctuations. To say, no there is a fourth, “you” decide, begs the question of when there started to be a “you” that was not created through one of the three types of causes described above.
I would define “strict determinism” as being the theory that everything is absolutely determined. (Note added later: I believe this is often referred to as “hard determinism, and contrasts with “soft determinism”). Some determinists might actually, when pressed, admit that there is a spark of free will, but that they just claim that most human behavior is “determined”. I would probably have a minimal quarrel with this type of determinist, and maybe even put myself in this camp.
Why does it seem so important to us that we have this spark of freedom within us? Obviously this was a major factor or incentive in Immanuel Kant’s ethical writings. One major reason for the interest has to do with punishment, justice, and blame. “Ought implies can”, so why blame or punish people if they cannot help what they do. But of course this is silly, since if strict determinism were really true we couldn’t ourselves help blaming and punishing them, and so on.
Bertrand Russell often wrote that he did not believe in free will. He argued somewhere that if a protozoa did not have free will, and no one would argue that it did, how could people have it. That argument seems to me to be weak, for why could there not be the emergence of totally new phenomena in more complex or evolving organisms? Indeed, it seems plausible that free will could have evolved along with consciousness and reason, all of which are connected and related somehow.
Free will seems to be inextricably bound up with rationality, or reason. Somewhere the philosopher Ayn Rand has written that free will amounts to the free choice of whether to think or not to think, apparently implying that if one chooses to think, then he is free to go where the argument leads him. But of course this seems to gloss over the issue of whether one really is free to choose whether to think or not. But a determinist would say this choice itself is determined causally.
The argument that free will consists of the freedom to choose whether to think or not to think--i.e., whether to use reason or not--seems highly plausible to me. Maybe that is the reason that rationality evolved. Why would it evolve if it were not something that the organism would use? If we are just following nature, wouldn’t reason seem to be superfluous, a meaningless byproduct of evolution? And we all recognize that whatever features and organism evolves usually has some key function in the organisms survival (Darwin and all). There also seems to be a sense in which human action is “overdetermined” is reason is mechanistic.
Determinism is based simply on the idea that events are determined by physical laws, that all is mechanistic nature. There is no room for will in this picture, though quantum mechanics would perhaps make room for randomness, and chaos theory would preclude the practical possibility of actually predicting the evolution of the universe in all details (“Laplacian Determinism”).I think that “common sense” recommends free will to us. The fact that we cannot even say what it could possibly be does not deter us. Note that by saying we cannot even say what it could possibly be, is not the same as saying that we cannot say what causes free will. As I have argued above, there seems to not even be any sense to the concept of free will. But neither does there seem to be any sense to the concept of rational being without free will. Determinism could be mapped onto the idea of all beings simply following a “script”, the script here being ultimately just the events unfolding according to natural law.

Do we have "Free will"?

Consider one of the “Great Philosophical Issues”: that of Free will versus Determinism.
Do we humans have free will? Are our choices and actions determined by outside forces (or even inside mechanical forces not having to do with the results conscious choice. Well, maybe the point is that we can do what our conscious mind decide to do, but what they decide to do is determined).
By determined, I mean one of three agencies causes the action: (1) mechanical or physical forces (biological "hardware" is included here, e.g., genetic causes), (2) randomness, or (3) past experience. It is interesting that it is (3) that many social scientists refer to when they say we are determined ("nurture" rather than "nature").
One of the problems with arguing against determinism is: What does free will even mean? If an action is not caused by mechanical forces, randomness, or past experience, what can it be based on. Doesn't it really seem that these include every cause we can think of? I mean, when the "you" decides to do something, isn't that due to your physical state and your past pattern of action (your character). Even postulating the existence of a soul or spirit whereby one's consciousness transcends nature doesn't seem to offer a way out, as the same possibilities seem to exhaust things there too, (since “hardware” would now the stuff of that world). It is often thought hat quantum mechanics suggests free will because of the random nature of things in its view, but it is not clear to me that this is the case because what comfort is it to think that randomness is a factor in our choices. surely this is not what free will means. True, quantum mechanics does suggest a way out or room for free will, but it doesn't seem to help understand what it is.
There are problems with determinism also. Why can't we say to the advocate of determinism "you are just advocating that position because you have to!"? In other words taking and defending a position seems to assume we're not determined by any of the above three things. Or you wouldn't be trying to convince me since my position is determined too. In other words, how can an automaton arrive at the truth that it is just a robot; then it would think that because it was programmed in (or it was programmed in as a possibility to be thought in case of certain random triggers), and we would then ask if the program were "validated" against the real world.Perhaps, as philosopher Martin Gardner has suggested, the whole problem is insoluble to us beings that experience their reality "in time". In other words, maybe the paradox is only resolvable "outside of time"…..if there is such a thing.

Answers to Various Physics Questions

Answers to Various Physics Questions:
Some of the most common physics questions concern the buoyancy of various objects. Of course, any discussion of buoyancy is apt to recall a certain historical event where Archimedes, who was the first person to actually use the word, even though he wasn't exactly sure what it meant but just liked the sound of it, sprang from the tub and ran naked through the streets shouting "Buoyancy, buoyancy!". The proper authorities were notified, and buoyancy experiments in bathtubs were thereby banned for a thousand years. There was then a resurgence of buoyancy research in and around Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s, where considerable interest arose in whether witches float. The question was never conclusively answered, but it was definitely established that broomsticks float, and modern science was born.
But here are some common buoyancy questions: people have called in wanting to know whether asparagus floats. Well, our answer is that we'd recommend staying with root beer floats. Another common question is whether buoy is pronounced "bewey" (to rhyme with Hewey, Louie, and Dewy), or "boy". The answer here is complex, and is deemed beyond the scope of this blog. We recommend you contact "Miss Manners" before attending a cocktail party where you intend to discuss buoyancy-related issues (although if you are known to talk about such things, we doubt you will be invited to very many).
Another frequently asked question concerns the famous, so-called "Schrodinger's Cat Paradox". Well let's put paid to this one forthwith, because we have discovered that Schrodinger did not, in fact, even own a cat---he owned a parakeet. End of that paradox! And please note that the "Schrodinger's Parakeet Paradox" sounds just plain stupid, and we refuse to pursue it anymore here.
And then, many of you have asked why the sky is blue. Well the answer to that is that it hasn't always been, and may not be even next year, according to many of the pundits. For example, in the Renaissance it was a pinkish shade, in the 1930's it was light greenish dotted with little sailboats, and so on. In fact, the sky is sort of like a huge "screen saver", because otherwise the sun would just be way too bright, and nobody would ever be able to catch a fly ball. Hence this is not a physics question, but just a matter of esthetic preference on the part of whoever it is that controls the sky.
Several of you have inquired as to how the bagpipes work. Well, the obvious answer to this stupid question is that they don't, or else they wouldn't sound the way they do.
The last question that we have space for here concerns why us physics people insist on using the Latin sounding phrase, "et al" after our names. Well part of the reason is that it sounds rather erudite, and helps compensate for mistakes in the actual scientific paper. But another reason is that scientists often lack will power when it comes to food, and we are often heard saying that we can't believe we "et [it] all".
That’s all we have time for now, but remember--you can always call to get your answers on the Physics Hotline, 1-800-Why-Is-It. Prices are as always: answers are 5 cents, answers requiring thought are 50 cents; the costs of correct answers, like lobster, vary with the availability.