Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Feast or famine

Every day, two or three massive lorries roll by on the Ventry-Ballyferriter road down there at the bottom of the hill. They are carrying empty plastic bottles to the Kerry Spring bottled water plant in Ballyferriter, at the end of the peninsula, where they exchange their cargo for filled bottles. These they carry back to God-knows-where, undoubtedly some distribution center closer to the population centers of Ireland. It is something to watch these huge trucks negotiate our narrow roads, pushing terrified tourist drivers into the hedges.

I'd be willing to bet a tidy sum that no one can tell Kerry Spring water from whatever water would be pumped up out of the ground anywhere else in Ireland. Certainly, it's the same water we get from our well. I remember when Consumer Reports did taste tests on bottled waters. Even the most expensive foreign brands did no better than New York City tap water. What a world it is where consumers in Tokyo drink water from France.

My wife brought home some yellow onions in a string bag from the Dingle supermarket yesterday, then noticed that they came from Chile. Now, if we were somehow providing a market for impoverished Chilean farmers to sell their produce, I would perhaps see a point to shipping onions thousands of miles to Europe, but something tells me that's not the case. And here's the killer: We started to put a bag of potatoes in our shopping trolley, and noticed that they came from Israel. Israeli potatoes in Ireland!

My friend the inestimable essayist Scott Russell Sanders wrote a lovely book called Staying Put, extolling the virtues of local life. Water, onions and potatoes should stay put. Maybe I should too.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bombs away

In the fall of 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was a graduate student in physics at the University of Notre Dame, living in married student housing with my wife and two kids. Like every other American, we expected the bombs might fall at any time. Not that the Russkies were likely to target South Bend, Indiana, but we were downwind of Chicago and in the path of fallout.

What to do? Our three-story apartment building was flimsily constructed; we could get as much protection by throwing a piece of tissue paper over our heads. There was a storage closet deep under the central stairwell, but the key was in the hands of our next-door neighbor, and he made it clear there was only room for one family. His.

Well, I had a suitcase packed with emergency supplies -- mostly packets of solid and nourishing Fig Newtons -- and a plan. At first hint of war, we would hie it to the cyclotron building, a stout little structure in the middle of the campus with three-foot thick, lead-lined walls designed to keep the radiation it, and, of course, equally effective at keeping radiation out. Unfortunately, as it turned out, every other physics student had the same idea. Faculty too. We would have been squeezed in there more compactly than the graphite bricks in Fermi's atomic pile. It was generally agreed that those among us who possessed firearms would have first dibs.

Ah, the moral dilemmas. What abnegations of Christian charity were justified to save one's family? In the end, my wife and I decided to take our chances with the radioactive ash. Better that than the Fig Newtons.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Onward Christian soldiers

In the 1850s, on the eve of the Indian Mutiny, the Reverend Midgely John Jennings, the chaplain of the tiny Christian population of Delhi -- where the last of the Mughal emperors held court -- urged the uprooting and extinction of the Hindu and Moslem faiths. His instrument would be the technological prowess of the British Empire, the divinely-gifted agency of God's Providence. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Is the web killing culture?

Andrew Keen is over this way flogging his book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy." Here as everywhere he is stirring up a furious reaction.

Keen was himself an early enthusiast of the internet who has done a one-eighty. His target: the entirety of Web 2.0 culture of user-generated content. MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger, Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, spam, etc. He longs for the days of the professional gatekeepers -- the editors, publishers, librarians, reviewers, and critics who sifted through the infinite sea of content and gave us what they deemed significant.

To the angry armies of the blogosphere, Keen is "a mastodon growling against the warm wind of change."

I'm certainly not qualified to comment on the controversy. I've never been to MySpace or Facebook, never entered a chat room, seldom read a blog other than my own. I find Wikipedia useful, and as generally reliable as any library reference book. I do not trust Amazon reviews, although I sometimes find them fun to read. I detest spam.

I love the access I have here on my Irish hillside to almost any artifact of human culture, and my wife happily spends an hour each day reading the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon, TruthOut, and heaven knows what else. I blog, but then I have always kept a journal, so blogging is no great change in my life, and has the advantage that I learn from all the smart -- and wonderfully courteous -- folks who read and comment on what I write. In the meantime, I read as many real books as ever, and the local bookstore shows no diminution of choices. The Irish Times is as fine a newspaper as it ever was. And I'll keep writing books, as long as someone is kind enough to publish them.

The internet isn't killing my culture, and I don't see any effect on the economy here in Ireland, which is internet driven and booming. Sure, some traditional businesses will fall by the wayside, but such has been the case with every new technology. To each his own, I say. Let a thousand web sites bloom. Bring on Web 3.0, whatever that will be. I will adopt what I find useful, and try to ignore the rest. Better too many choices than too few.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Fairy forts

I mentioned here a week or so ago a new book of interviews with some of the older women of the Dingle area, and how often -- nostalgically, but skeptically -- the fairies came up in their reflections.

I did not mean this in a condescending way. The ancient fairy faith of Ireland is no more or less superstitious than the religion of angels and devils that I was raised in as a child. It is an almost universal aspect of religious faith that the world is inhabited by unseen spirits who in ways both good and bad affect our destinies.

The Dingle Peninsula, like much of Ireland, is pocked with "fairy forts"; some 450 are recorded in the archeological survey of the peninsula. These are actually Iron Age or Early Christian farmstead enclosures, mostly circular, usually of earth, but sometimes of stone. Their purpose, presumably, was both to enclose cattle, and provide protection against cattle raiders and wild animals. As the rings were abandoned they became associated in the popular imagination with the fairies, who were thought to live there underground.

Many of think of fairies as tiny Tinker-Bell creatures with wings. The fairies of Irish lore were a considerably more complex population of supernatural gods and goddesses, not unlike the angels and devils of Christianity. The fairy faith was (I quote Sean O Duinn) "above all a fertility cult concerned with food production, health, protection, good harvests, children, large herds of cattle, sheep and pigs." There was little in the way of abstruse theological speculation. Rather, the fairy faith was lived emotively day by day in the face of raw nature.

It is estimated by archeologists that about a third of the Irish ring forts have been erased by modern agriculture. That so many survive is largely due to the aura of lingering fairy faith that accounted them holy and dangerous places -- long enough for modern archeological sensitivity to give them some degree of government protection.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair

It was 1964-65, my first year of full-time teaching, when Peter Lucchesi, a colleague from the English Department, introduced me to Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning. It was the beginning of a decade-long apprenticeship to Stevens' smart but difficult poetry -- and an intellectual awakening.

Sunday Morning sets out our longing for immortality ("imperishable bliss"), and opposes it with the ephemeral beauty of this world ("comforts of the sun...pungent fruit and bright green wings"). Death is the mother of beauty, writes Stevens, and opts at last to live for what is given, tangible, perceptible, real.

It was from that moment, I believe, that I put hope of heaven behind me and chose to live as fully as possible in the here and now. No more the grim forebodings of eternal punishment. No more the culture of indulgences and sin and Acts of Contrition and foregoing innocent sensual pleasures in favor of storing up points to be cashed in at the Pearly Gates. I would live as best I could honestly and well, cultivating love and beauty wherever I could find it. As I write this bright morning, I have my coffee at my right hand and the silver Atlantic out the window to my left. It is enough.

I was reminded of Stevens' poem as I read last evening some verses of the poet Ghalib, at the Mughal court of Delhi, India, in the mid-19th century, quoted in William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal. "In Paradise it is true that I shall drink at dawn the pure wine mentioned in the Koran," he writes:
...but where in Paradise are the long walks with intoxicated friends in the night, or the drunken crowds shouting merrily? Where shall I find there the intoxication of monsoon clouds? Where there is no Autumn how can Spring exist? If the beautiful houris are always there, where will be the sadness of separation and the joy of union? Where shall we find there a girl who flees away when we would kiss her?
Where indeed? Not for me that place of earnest imaginings -- the Beatific Vision, the ripe fruit that never falls. It is death -- final, expected and unambiguously real -- that makes the willow shiver in the sun and stirs the undulations of pigeons as they sink downward to darkness on extended wings.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Care of body and soul

In the 1940s, the Medical Arts Building on McCallie Avenue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was one of the tallest buildings in town. My father would park the green Ford (born in 1936, the same year as me) in the parking lot at back and my mother would whizz me up in the elevator to Doctor Starr's office on the fifth floor. This was at a time when doctors still made house calls for serious afflictions, but for minor ailments my mom insisted on dragging us downtown.

The doctor probed my skinny chest with his cold-nosed stethoscope. He prodded my white belly with his rubbery fingers. He peered down my throat with the help of a shiny reflector attached to a strap around his head. "Hmm," he said. Then, "Hmm, hmm." He tilted toward my mother. "He'll be fine in the morning," said Doctor Starr.

And I was.

My soul too needed tending.

The nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School lined us up two-by-two for the march to the church and every-other-week confession. I stood in line outside the confessional, between Billy Swanson and Carmen Costello, waiting my turn, and wondering what exactly were my sins. I knew that my acute awareness of cute Carmen was fraught with significance, and possibly sin, but I would have had no idea what to confess. A year or two later I would have a name for it: impure thoughts. "Bless me, Father, I have had impure thoughts 4623 times." Except I wouldn't give the exact number. I usually rounded off at five, a nice compromise between "goody-goody" and "depraved."

But in 1945 it was the usual roster of made-up sins we all confessed: disobedient (four times), told lies (twice), selfish (three times), disrespectful to my parents (twice). That seemed about right. I stepped into the box and the little wooden window slid open, and Father Shea said, "Hmm?" And then, after a silence, "Hmm." I rattled off my sins, received my absolution and penance (five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys), and left the box in a state of grace.

Only to pass cute Carmen going in.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Singing beside me in the wilderness

In one of those infuriating lapses that go with being a certain age, we could not remember the other evening the name of the poet who wrote "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou..." After scraping the tip of my tongue for a few minutes, I turned to the computer (Google is my browser's home page) and by typing "jug thou" brought Omar Khayyam back into consciousness. (Another click and I could have had the entire Rubaiyat.)

And so it is that the Googlized internet arrives just in time to compensate for our withering brain cells. Everything I ever remembered is there to be Googled, plus everything I never remembered. Ten billions pages. The searchable memory of the human race.

With more yet to come.

My great-great-grandchildren will no doubt have tiny video cameras implanted in the middle of their foreheads, like Hindu beauty marks, recording everything that passes before their eyes 24-7, with a sound track too. All of which will be stored digitally, ready for instant playback, and searchable by date, time, GPS coordinates, or keywords -- the whole of a life, not only available to the subjects themselves in their memory-lapsed dotage, but to future generations. "Here's great-great-grandpa on his ninety-first birthday, back in 2027. Look how he dribbles soup on his shirt. Ha, ha."

I think nature knew what it was doing when it allows our memory to fade with age. It is particularly notable that the more unpleasant memories go first, so that every summer past was golden with sunshine, and every child was a model of respectful propriety. And no one, not even grandpa himself, remembers the time he...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Between desire and fulfillment

There was a time when our ancestors endowed every tree, brook, animal, mountain, Sun and Moon with a humanlike spirit. Slowly, with the advance of empirical knowing, the naiads, dryads, oreads, nereids, limoniads, potamids, fairies, gnomes, leprechauns, elf children, banshees, hobgoblins, incubi, succubi, and gods of heavenly bodies were banished to the realm of superstition. The crowded pantheons of Greeks and Romans were collapsed into one abstract person, the omniscient, all-powerful Father of the monotheistic faiths (albeit with with a retinue of angels and saints).

Religious naturalists and agnostics take things just one step further. We choose to live in this world of unfathomable mystery without the company of even a single humanlike deity.

But we are not without longing. We are not without love. We are humbled by the complexity and beauty of a universe that vastly transcends the human dimension. In Kiran Desai's novel, The Inheritance of Loss, the young girl Sai muses: "Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself."

Lucky is the theist who claims a "personal" relationship with the creator of the universe. Religious naturalists and agnostics content ourselves with the ache, the anticipation, the retreat.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Apotheosis of self

Through a glass darkly, or in a mirror brightly? See this week's Musing.

And another Sunday grace from my sister Anne, from her mesa in the West. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The sands of time

Here is a slab of 400-million-year-old Old Red Sandstone quarried from a nearby hill and placed here by the Kerry County Council as part of a seawall for Ventry Pier. On its face are beach ripples similar to those one might see any day at low tide on the sand flats of Ventry Harbor.

Beach ripples inside a mountain! How did they get there? In a journal entry for May 21, 1831, the fossilist Gideon Mantell recounts an expedition he made with the great geologist Charles Lyell to a quarry at Horsham, in southeastern England, where they observed slabs of ancient sandstone covered with ripple marks. He later described the ripples and their orign in an article for the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. No one who has observed the action of waves on a living beach can doubt that the identical undulations in ancient sandstones were made by the same agency, Mantell asserted. He added: "Obvious as the cause of this curious appearance seems to be, yet it has been a subject of dispute among men of science, the mind being but too apt to seek for a mysterious agent, to explain effects which have been, and are still being, produced by some simple operation of nature."

Biblical literalists, in their commitment to their "mysterious agent," must provide some other explanation for the ripples in stone. A twist on the Deluge story, perhaps, or the standard creationist suggestion that when God created the world 6000 years ago he provided it with the evidences of a past it never had -- a navel for Adam, light already on the way from distant galaxies, and fossils and beach ripples inside of mountains.

Not all believers take the Genesis creation story literally. They accept the antiquity of the Earth and the scientific account of the universe's history. But they believe things no less fantastic than a six-day creation -- the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, say, or the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, or personal immortality. Surely, an all-powerful God who acts miraculously in the world would have no more trouble putting beach ripples inside mountains than in raising Lazarus from the dead. Which is to say, what's the point of picking and choosing among miracles, accepting science when the evidence is overwhelming, and invoking 2000-year-old "mysterious agents" when the sparsity of evidence allows some wiggle room?

A more consistent attitude is the one at the heart of the scientific way of knowing: There are no miracles to pick and choose between. Or, which is to say the same thing, there is only one miracle, and that miracle is the universe in all of its mystery and tentatively knowable glory.

Friday, July 20, 2007


I suggested in a post the other day that the "global internet may be our best hope yet of freeing humankind from the baleful influence of supernaturalist magic of every stripe." Paul commented that I was too optimistic. The internet, as he pointed out, is a mix of good and bad, sense and nonsense, ennobling sentiment and degrading inhumanity.

And he is certainly correct: Ignorance we have always with us. But as a lifelong teacher, I cannot help but hold that access to knowledge -- reliable, consensus knowledge of the world -- is a good thing, and the internet, if nothing else, makes consensus knowledge available to those who previously had access only to local lore and prejudices. Will good thoughts drive out bad? In a free marketplace of ideas, will humanizing thought always win?

Some studies suggest we are predisposed to optimism or pessimism from birth. Or perhaps I was nudged towards optimism by my Christian upbringing, which imagined history as directional and progressive. I may be hopeful about the internnet because of my early infatuation with the Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin -- at a time when the internet did not even exist!

Teilhard was an prophet of globalization. He understood the pressures of population compression on a planet of finite area and resources, and he foresaw the consolidating role of electronics: "Thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electromagnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the Earth." He called this emerging layer of disembodied thought the noosphere, by analogy with the biosphere, and his coinage may yet turn out to be the best name for what we now call, loosely, the internet. Certainly, when Tom sends me the globe-spanning maps showing readers of this blog, I am reminded of those passages from Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man that I read almost half-a-century ago.

Yes, I am optimistic, but I would be hard pressed to refute a pessimist (note the "may" in my initial statement). Teilhard was forced to optimism by his Christian faith. I am an optimist because a lifetime in teaching confirmed for me another of Teilhard's axioms: Minds are stimulated by proximity.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Here come the ducks!

You will remember the consignment of 30,000 yellow plastic ducks that were swept from a container ship by a storm in the North Pacific Ocean in 1992. They have subsequently been adrift, and oceanographers have followed their progress as a way of mapping winds and ocean currents.

The ducks seem to have spent their first years of freedom drifting counterclockwise in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Some of the silent quackers escaped the gyre and found their way to Japan and Indonesia. Others peeled off to the north, slipped through the Bering Straits, and found themselves trapped in Arctic Ice. They moved with the floes across the Arctic Ocean towards Greenland and Iceland, where, released by melting, they joined the currents of the North Atlantic. By 2001, yellow ducks were showing up in Newfoundland, then down along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Here, presumably, some were snatched away by the Gulf Stream and carried towards Europe. This past week, the first duck was apparently found on a British beach in Devon by a retired school teacher named Penny Harris.

And so, and so -- I walk the beaches here in Kerry with a wary eye. What could be more thrilling than finding a yellow duck, with the "First Years" logo, that had spent fifteen years on an ocean swim of many thousands of miles? Our prevailing winds and currents come from the east, sometimes bringing North American birds and even butterflies to our shores. I have previously suggested on this site that the arrival of strange creatures out of the sea may have been a reason why early Irish myths all speak of an exotic land out there in the Western Ocean -- the Land of the Blessed that inspired Saint Brendan and his companions to launch themselves upon their legendary 6th-century voyage in a boat not unlike the one pictured here yesterday. If we didn't know about the Pacific storm and battered container ship, what curious Hy-Brasil would we imagine was the source of a flotilla of yellow plastic ducks.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Ventry Regatta

To American ears, regatta is a curious name for the rowing races that take place around the Dingle Peninsula each summer. The craft are the traditional currachs that have been used here for centuries (millennia?), constructed of wooden laths covered with tarred canvas (greased animal skins in former times). The oars are bladeless. It is the rare currach that is used these days for fishing, but the art of building these boats and racing them remains intact. A decade or so ago, it seemed currach building and racing might pass into oblivion, but as you can see from the photo even very young children are becoming involved. All in all, regatta is a grand day, with currach races in the harbor, foot races on the beach, Irish dancing on the village green, and many a downed pint at the pub.

There are those who suggest that globalization will erase vernacular cultures. The experience here suggest otherwise. It is true, for example, that the art of building with native stone almost died out in the west of Ireland as concrete blocks became ubiquitous. But with the Irish economic boom -- driven by globalization -- more and more people want and can afford the beautiful traditional stone work for their homes and garden walls, and craftsmen can now make a good living reviving the old skills. The same is true for music and currach racing. With economic growth there has been a renewed interest in traditional culture and the leisure to pursue it. Yes, the signs of global homogenization are everywhere, and not altogether a bad thing, I think, for a planet riven by differences. But the best of local traditions will survive, as evidenced by the beautiful craft we saw skimming the smooth waters of Ventry Harbor, and the youngsters who have taken their hands to the oars.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Servant to the wheel

Mug Roith is a shady character who slips across centuries of Irish prehistory. He is called "Servant to the Wheel," and the wheel itself is a bit of a mystery. By some accounts, it was a flying machine -- an oared wheel -- rather like a modern helicopter. Druid sorcerers like Mug Roith and Simon Magus were generally accounted the magical ability to fly, a skill later taken up by Christian saints like Joseph of Cupertino, who used to bang about the chapel like a trapped sparrow.

It seems more likely that the oared wheel of druidic lore, to which Mug Roith was servant, was the Sun, the chief deity in Europe in preChristian times. The endless wheeling of the diurnal and annual solar cycles established the rhythms of life; if one were going to choose any single aspect of the natural world as a divinity, the Sun was an obvious choice. All around us here in Ireland there are preChristian stone circles and alignments that manifestly mark the solar peregrinations. On the hill above our house is what remains of a burial chamber whose axis points like a arrow to the place on the horizon where the Sun rises on the equinox. Whatever pagan chieftain was buried there no doubt hoped to rise again with the turning of the wheel.

The parish church here is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who has quite a following in this part of Ireland, and whose martyred body is said to have washed up on our beach in a barrel. How the saint's corpse made it from the Mediterranean to West Kerry is no less a miracle, I suppose, than a oared flying machine. Catherine too is associated with a wheel. She was martyred on a spiked wheel, a Roman instrument of torture, and that Sun-sign is still part of the semipagan rites that preserve her memory (if she existed at all). It is perhaps not surprising that her veneration is so popular in the formerly druidic countries of the north.

One thing I love about the Catholicism of my youth is the way the canonical hours of the day and the annual liturgies evoke and preserve a consciousness of the solar rhythms. Catholic Christianity, especially, is a highly sublimated solar religion. Christmas, Easter, earth, air, fire and water, bread, wine, wax and incense, the Eucharist displayed in a blazing solar monstrance. What a lusciously sensual faith! Strip away the overlay of supernatralism, and even I might choose to be an acolyte to the wheel.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Black magic

Directly out the window of my studio, across Dingle Bay, is the island of Valentia, almost, but not quite, the westernmost point of Europe. (Our own Dingle Peninsula tips it for the honor.) Valentia is known especially for two things: It is notable in legend as the home of the infamous druid and black magician Mug Roith, the Servant of the Wheel, who is said to have beheaded John the Baptist, the second greatest crime in history after the crucifixion of Jesus; and it was here on the shore of Valentia Harbor, on August 16, 1858, that the first messages were received across the newly-laid Atlantic Cable.

Mug Roith in pagan lore was the chief assistant of Simon Magus, the arch-sorcerer of New Testament times and mortal enemy of Christianity, who gave us the word simony for the selling of ecclesiastical preferments. The "wheel" to which Mug Roith was servant was the roth rumhach, the Oared Wheel of pagan mythology that would appear at the last judgment (more on this tomorrow). For centuries, Ireland labored under the threat of divine retribution for the crime of her Valentian son.

Surely, no less fabulous than the story of Mug Roith were those first faint electrical pulses that made their way through two thousand miles of cable on the sea floor. Here was a kind of natural magic equal to the roaring fires Mug Roith is said to have raised by incantation to afflict his enemies. Of course, as we know, Saint Patrick's Christian magic prevailed in Ireland over the druid sorcerers, although their pagan memory still lingers in the landscape. The sparks that enlivened the now-defunct cable station on Valentia Island have meanwhile blossomed into an global Internet that may be our best hope yet of freeing humankind from the baleful influence of supernaturalist magic of every sort.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A conversation with Schrodinger's cat

Somewhere there's a universe where Al Gore won the 2000 election. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday gift.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Can exa and atto be far behind?

It was just nine years ago that my Boston Globe column welcomed the arrival of teraflops. Tera is the prefix for trillion. Flop is short for "floating-point operation," a kind of computer calculation performed with a movable decimal point. A teraflop computer can do a trillion floating-point operations per second. That's a thousand gigaflops, or a thousand thousand megaflops -- a calculation every picosecond, or trillionth of a second.

In 1998, mega (million) and micro (millionth) were fading as prefixes in the computer world. Giga (billion) and nano (billionth) were all the rage. And tera (trillion) and pico (trillionth) loomed on the horizon. Every half-dozen years or so the capacity and speed of computers increased by a factor of a thousand.

Now, IBM is about to smash the petaflop barrier. Their new machine, called Blue Gene/P, should be operational next year, with nearly a million parallel processors operating together. The largest planned configuration for the machine would run at a top speed of 3 petaflops per second, ten times faster than its nearest competitor.

Weather prediction, protemics, and genome analysis are obvious applications. But to my mind the most exciting scientific applications will be to the historical sciences, such as cosmology and evolution, that do not lend themselves to experimental testing of the usual sort. After all, we can't do experiments with the entire universe in the laboratory, nor do we have billions of real years to perform experiments on evolution. But with sufficiently powerful machines, we can build simulations of cosmic space and geologic time that will tell us if our theories reasonably account for the world we observe.

And, as always, expect spillover into the world of home computing. A decade from now our laptops will have 256 parallel processors, at least Aside from ever more realistic video games, I can't imagine what we'll do with all that computing power, but I'm sure we'll wonder how we ever lived without it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Eye in the sky

A murder trial has all of Ireland transfixed these days. A Mr. Joe O'Reilly is accused of bludgeoning his wife to death. He claims he was on the other side of town at the time of the crime. The court has now heard testimony that the defendant's cellphone calls put him near the scene of the crime at approximately the time the murder was committed. It turns out that a cell service provider can link calls to the mast that first receives them. And so the jury got a map tracing O'Reilly's movements across the Dublin area, mast by mast by mast.

It goes without saying that the recipients of O'Reilly's calls can be identified, and if you guess there is another woman in the picture, you're right. Mr. O'Reilly's guilt or innocence remains to be seen.

It's getting increasingly difficult to be naughty these days, much less murderous. Someone, somewhere can follow our every move, in real space and in cyberspace. Google Earth and Local Live are watching from above. Surveillance cameras monitor every public space; in some European cities they peer down almost every street. (There are 4 million CCTVs in the UK, or one camera for every 15 people.) I don't know much about the technical details, but I suppose the government can track any GPS-equipped automobile if they choose to do so.

When I was a kid, our moral monitors warned us, "God sees everything." And so we imagined that even under the blankets in our bedroom with the door closed the Big Guy had his eye on us. No sooner did we shake off that oppressive sense of divine surveillance, than omnipresent electronic surveillance appears on the scene. Bless me, Google, for I have sinned.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The darkness without and the darkness within

The two great themes of John Updike's fiction are sex and religion. For his male protagonists, religion functions mostly as a fence -- not to constrain their carnal hankerings, but to make the "grass" looks greener on the other side.

Toward the end of Villages, almost as a throwaway, Updike offers three "evidential arguments" for the truths of Christianity.

The first is our wish to live forever, "however tedious the actual experience of eternal consciousness might be." Updike is remarkably well informed about science (more so than any other major novelist I am aware of), so he knows that an innate longing for immortality is a natural Darwinian response to the fear of death. In any case, it is hard to see what is specifically Christian about wanting to live forever.

Second, there is our sensation that "something is amiss," that things are not quite what they should be. I can go along with him on this, and there's no need to bring natural selection into it. Once nature has endowed us with consciousness, intelligence, and self-reflection -- presumably for good Darwinian reasons -- it is inevitable that we will wonder if there's not more to the world than meets the eye. But again, there is nothing specifically Christian about this; what we are talking about here is part of any religious response to the world, including that of the religious naturalist.

Third, Updike notes that belief benefits the health: "An anxiety-relieving faith conduces to worldly efficiency and success." He's on solid ground here; many scientific studies indicate that believers tend to be healthier and more at peace with themselves than nonbelievers. This applies not only to Christians, but to New Age navel-gazers, Jews on kibbutzim, and Tibetan monks. Even Updike's nominally Christian protagonist, Owen Mackenzie, knows that marginally better health is a shabby reason to believe. He wakes at three in the morning churning with the same anxieties as those of us who live our lives without the benefit of faith.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Personal computing

I'm always running a book or two behind with John Updike, so it is only now that I'm getting to Villages, his 2004 novel. It's more of the same, of course. Owen Mackenzie, the protagonist of Villages, is Rabbit redux, and his Middle Falls,Connecticut, is the Tarbox of Couples. But we read, because Updike is such a fine stylist and endlessly inventive master of metaphor.

Owen might as easily have been a used-car salesman or a minister, but this time around he is a computer nerd, an MIT electrical engineering grad who in the late-1950s launches his skiff of a career on the rising tide of digital computation, so the novel is not only a compendium of his sexual peccadilloes (and more weighty, skiff-sinking transgressions), it is also a neat half-century history of computers.

It would have been fun if Updike had turned his sly wit to a nonfiction meditation on the parallels between computing and sex that he hints at in the novel. For those of us who embarked on these activities in the 1950s, programming was a prerequisite and there was lots of down time. DO LOOPs, GO TOs, IF-THENs: Everything was in code and one needed to know a bit from a byte. There were no Undos. Then came the Sexual Revolution with its Graphical User Interface, and everything got rather GUI, both more and less complicated. Drop down menus. Point and click. Cut and paste. No need to know what went on inside the box.

And now, for the younger generation, it seems that sex and computing have merged. Facebook, MySpace, IM, Second Life, chat rooms: it's hard to know where the real world ends and the virtual world begins. A tectonic shift has taken place, from hardware to software. Me, I still have a sneaking nostalgia for those bulky soldered circuits in their agitated ANDs, ORs, and NOTs, those racks of magnetic cores threaded with fine wires remembering data with the same tactile finesse as tingly skin, the chill of holding a thick deck of punch cards in your hands and the fear that if you dropped them you'd never get them back in order again, and, of course, the thrill of taking the back panel off the cabinet and seeing all those vacuum tubes glowing red hot.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sky high

As upright primates, the sky is half of our visual field, but we give it only a tiny fraction of our attention. Food, drink, sex and shelter are all to be found close to the ground. What goes on above our heads is mostly irrelevant.

Here in Ireland the sky is much more than half our visual field; we couldn't ignore it if we wanted to. Our cottage is perched on a hill above Dingle Bay, and beyond the garden wall the land slopes to the sea, as if trying to get out of the way, surrendering the view to -- air. Insistent, in-your-face, not-to-be-ignored nitrogen, oxygen and water vapor. A big floor-to-ceiling canvas on which wind, water and light create an ever-changing spectacle -- gaudy gobs and brushstrokes of color, atmospherics managed by Maxfield Parrish.

It's the water, of course, that makes our skies what they are -- the billowing cumulous clouds that pile up over the bay, the dense white blanket that lies on the mountain like sugar frosting or flows down from Mam na Gaoithe (the Windy Pass) like a slow, soft glacier, the rain that buckets against the slates, the rainbows -- sometimes two or three a day -- all that moisture sucked up into the air out there over the anomalously warm North Atlantic, then pushed in front of our pop-eyed view.

We don't have a television. But last evening we lay in bed and watched rainbows and pink castles come and go. Commercial free.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Spam wars

SPAM celebrated its 70th birthday last week, being almost as old as me. Homel's spiced ham loaf has sometimes been uncharitably called "a gelatinous pork brick." Mind you, I ate enough of it during the Second World War, and apparently the stuff is still wildly popular in some parts of the world. I'm told the Japanese write haikus to SPAM: "Perfection uncanned/ Like a beautiful redhead/ Fresh from her trailer." Hormel is understandably upset that the name of their beautiful pink meat has -- by way of Monty Python -- been appropriated for unwanted e-mail, and fights any computer filter company that uses "spam" in the name of its product.

Is it just me or has there been a explosion of spam in recent weeks? The usual enticements for drugs, penis patches, cheap loans, and discounted electronics (all presumably scams), but also more sophisticated phishing expeditions, with messages mimicking the Bank of America, Amazon, PayPal and Hallmark e-cards. All particularly annoying on dial-up. Surely this stuff clogs up the net, and the cost to the international economy must be staggering.

What's to be done? No, we don't want government screening our e-mail (although they are probably doing enough of that already). Where then are the clever young hackers who can take vigilante action on the part of the rest of us, track the spammers down to their sleazy electronic lairs, and infect their computers and servers with mortal pathogens? Illegal? There is not a court in the land that will convict them.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Talking trash

We've mostly solved our waste problem here except for newspapers. Piles and piles of newspapers. Bottles, cans, and plastic can be locally recycled, but the nearest newspaper recycling is 35 miles away. The pile grows. It threatens to topple over and bury us. See this week's Musing.

Anne is quilting. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

A few more thoughts on TB

When Robert Koch made the TB bacterium visible to the Physiological Society of Berlin in 1882, his audience knew they were participating in an historic moment. The 17th-century writer John Bunyan had called tuberculosis "the captain of all the men of death." The disease wreaked its terrible toll throughout the ages, at least as far back as the Neolithic, among all peoples, on all continents. In the late 19th century, it was feared that tuberculosis might destroy European civilization.

Koch's discovery of the cause of the disease was the first step in a long and ultimately successful search for a cure. By the early 1950's, two drugs, streptomycin and para-aminosalicylic acid (PAS), had proved their ability in combination to knock out the disease.

But the victory wasn't consolidated. Today, the tuberculosis bacterium -- Mycobacterium tuberculosis -- continues to take more victims than any other infectious agent. It has evolved new drug-resistant form, and it has forged a deadly alliance with the HIV virus, which weakens the body's natural defenses against the tuberculosis bacilli.

The genome of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis was sequenced in 1998, one of the earliest organisms to have its genome completely revealed -- 4.4 million chemical base pairs along its DNA double helix. The genome was displayed in the journal Nature as a five-foot-long fold-out map, beautifully colored, with a different hue for the genes of each functional category of proteins: metabolism, respiration, cell wall, virulence, and so on. It seemed to me then that the map resembled nothing so much as the score of a great symphony -- the symphony of life. What we saw in the foldout was not the face of evil -- the captain of all the men of death -- but the exquisite chemical dynamic that all life shares.

"Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In the imagination of romantic poets, composers and writers, tuberculosis conferred a kind a spiritual beauty on its victims: Mimi in La Boheme, Alphonsine Plessis in La Traviata, Little Blossom in David Copperfield. A character in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain says with somber conviction that the disease is "only love transformed" -- a thought that is unlikely to console a victim.

And yet, and yet -- in Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens described tuberculosis as a "disease in which death and life are so strangely blended, that death takes the glow and hue of life." The same might be said for the genome of Mycobacterium tuberculosis as it was displayed in the fold-out pages of Nature -- a beautiful and terrible lesson in the inescapable and amoral dynamic of evolution.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Beauty and terror

On the evening of March 24, 1882, a previously unknown country doctor in Germany delivered one of the most important scientific lectures of all time to the Physiological Society of Berlin. The audience included some of the country's most eminent scientists and physicians, who listened intently as small, bespectacled Robert Koch drew their attention to the table in front of him, where he had prepared glass slides of animal and human tissue for examination under the microscope. "Now - under the microscope the structures of the animal tissues, such as the nucleus and its breakdown products, are brown, while the tubercle bacteria are a beautiful blue," he said.

Blue because of a new method of staining developed by Koch that revealed what no one had seen before. There, under the microscope, were microscopically-small, pickle-shaped bacteria, the infectious agent of tuberculosis, mankind's most persistent scourge, glistening the color of a tropic sea.

I mentioned yesterday that I had been reading the reminiscences of women who grew up here in the West Kerry Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) in the years before the Second World War. Again and again, they speak of the terrible affliction of tuberculosis. Contracting the disease was effectively a death sentence. In some families, every young person was stricken. The specter of TB hung over the community like an ominous cloud. The fairies -- or malevolent spirits of some sort -- seemed to have it in for this remote corner of Ireland.

Not quite. What afflicted the West Kerry Gaeltacht was poverty, crowded living conditions, and a virtual absence of community health care. It was not the fairies, but coughing, spitting, sneezing, speaking and kissing that spread the disease -- difficult to avoid when as many as a dozen people might be living under one small roof. There was nothing malevolent about Mycobacterium tuberculosis; the microbe was doing what we all do, making more of its kind. Not until the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin in 1946 was effective treatment and cure possible.

All the prayers in the world did not alleviate the disease. Nighty family rosaries, patterns at holy shrines and wells, and personal mortifications had no effect. The faith of the people may have helped them endure the affliction, but it was the scientific way of knowing -- embodied in people like Robert Koch -- that ended the curse of TB in West Kerry.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Making hay while the sun shines

Tom and his wife made a whirlwind tour of the New York City art museums last week: the Met, MOMA and the Guggenheim. One of the works he particularly sought out at the Met was Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Harvesters, painted in 1565. (You an click on pic to enlarge.)

When we came here to (what was then) a remote corner of Ireland 30 years ago, I helped my neighbors in the fields. We made hay and oats with the same tools and in the same way as the farmers in Bruegel's painting. I was not allowed to scythe -- an art beyond the skills of a boy from suburban America. But I used the rake and the pike. My hay cocks invariably leaned precariously. We also made the stooks you see in Bruegel's painting, another art I never quite mastered. I did do pretty well at what you see most of the farmers in the painting doing, resting under a tree with a flask of tea and a drop of whiskey.

In 400 years the technology of farming had not changed a whit here in West Kerry. Then, almost overnight, it was all gone. In twenty years Ireland became one of the richest countries in the world, with a higher standard of living than America. One generation of West Kerry farmers made hay and oats like Bruegel's farmers, the next generation was stocking their freezers at Tescos and taking holidays in Orlando.

I'm reading a just-published book of oral reminiscences by women of West Kerry, most of them my age (70) or older, women who grew up without electricity, cars, phones, or indoor plumbing, who believed in fairies, walked barefoot to school, and helped in the fields with the rake and the pike, who now find themselves in the land of the Celtic Tiger -- 400 years of technological progress squeezed into a couple of decades. Most of them have warm memories of the past -- for those enchanting moments you see in the Bruegel painting -- but none wishes to go back. As one of the women says, "I think the fairies disappeared with the electric light, so they were really never there at all."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

An element of obscurity

There is a little book that every Catholic (or ex-Catholic) of a certain age will know: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. Perhaps no other book, not even the Bible, has for so long been a staple of Catholic spirituality. I first encountered Thomas in my early teens, at the urging of one of my teachers, but I was too busy then discovering girls to have any use for sanctity. I read the book again as I went through a period of religious fervor as a college student, and this time something of what Thomas was saying resonated with my own spiritual inclinations.

Of course, Thomas' exhortations are couched in the theological language of the 15th century, and the book is Christ-centered in an entirely orthodox way. But the gist of the author's message could be embodied within any spiritual system, East or West, secular or religious. Know yourself, he says. As far as possible, stay free of worldly entanglements. Value solitude and silence. Cultivate simplicity. Love others. And, of course: "All perfection in this life is accompanied by a measure of imperfection, and all our knowledge contains an element of obscurity."

Scientific learning is not to be despised, says Thomas, but a pure conscience and a holy life is much to be preferred. For some years, in my late teens and early twenties, I pursued both. I did very well with the study of science, not so well with the pure conscience and holy life. By my mid-twenties, the whole creaking apparatus of Catholic orthodoxy had begun to fall away, and with it the vain self-abnegation and hollow supernaturalism of The Imitation of Christ. Thomas advised loving the Creator, not the creation; I had become increasingly enamored of the natural world. Not, I hasten to add, as a distraction from the spiritual ideals of Thomas a Kempis, but rather as the source of the very things he urged upon us: self-knowledge, solitude, silence, simplicity and love. I was now reading Thoreau with the same attention I had formerly given Thomas; the two teachers, one secular, one religious, were in some ways not so far apart.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


When we bought our site here in the west of Ireland 30 years ago, some of the old people of the parish were surprised that we'd choose to live so high on the hill. Our unpaved lane was called "the Lover's Road" by day, and was at one time presumably a favorite walk for courting couples. By night it was "the Fairies' Road," and although by that time few people believed in "the little people," still the hillside where we built our cottage was not a place one chose to go in darkness. It is part of the ancient Celtic consciousness that there is a mysterious power afoot in the landscape, sometimes called neart, that can be used for good or bad, and the fairies were simply a way of giving an anthropomorphic face to a force that was otherwise beyond human knowing or control.

In Celtic thought, neart is everywhere -- in sky, Sun, Moon, earth, sea, animal, plant, stone. Even the gods, it seems, were caught up in the web of this mysterious power. Neart was not so much something one thought about as felt -- sensed as one sometimes senses a presence in a dark room at night. In certain places and at certain times the felt presence is especially strong, in forest glades, perhaps, or by deep clear mountain pools. Or while walking a high dark road at night under a canopy of stars.

I don't want to overly romanticize, as many do, the notion of Celtic spirituality. Nor do I want to suggest anything supernatural or New Agey mystical. But the idea of neart has a nice resonance for me, and is not so far removed from the faith of a religious naturalist. Imminent, yet mysterious. Not diminished by knowledge, but broadened. Addressed, if at all, by a kind of inarticulate awe. It is not enlightenment one feels in the presence of neart; rather, one is reminded of one's ignorance. Most of all, one feels caught up in something that reaches into (or out of) every part of one's being, not just the reason, or the will, or self-awareness, but the senses, the viscera, the lusts and longings, the stirrings and the windings in every cell of one's body.

There are no dogmas in the faith of a religious naturalist. No public liturgies. We have no bishops, rabbis or imans. We walk wary, as likely as not in solitude and silence. Neart is not something we read about in holy books, or hear about in sermons. In it, we live, and move, and have our being.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Home from the market

Friday is farmer's market day in Dingle, and for the weekend it's local breads and cheeses that sustain us (with wine, of course). Bread and winemaking yeasts are fungi, and cheese-making relies on fungi too. Throw in some mushrooms and half of what's for sale on the farmers' tables is fungus related. Doesn't sound particularly appetizing when you put it that way, does it?

But, really now, the fungi are not the point of a farmer's market. Mostly it's plants we're after -- wheat for bread, grapes for wine, and grass that feeds the cows that make the milk for cheese. Animals and fungi are parasites (of sorts) on plants. Only plants can tap the energy of the Sun. This Emerald Isle is one big solar panel.

Biologists are not sure how photosynthesis evolved, but that it happened early in the history of life is certain. In the Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins puts the date at -- well, actually, he doesn't. By the time he gets to our common ancestor with the fungi he has given up any pretense that we know with much certainty when things happened.

Every high school student learns the basic equation of photosynthesis: Carbon dioxide plus water plus sunlight yields carbohydrates and oxygen (with all the C's, H's and O's appropriately balanced). The equation doesn't nearly convey an appreciation for the complex reactions that connect one side of the reaction arrow to the other. Crucial to the process is a boxy molecule (chlorophyll, of course) with a magnesium heart and a long tail. Atomic electrons in the molecule are bumped up in energy by sunlight. As they return their bounty, they energize reactions that create intermediate products called ATP and NADPH, which then move along the assembly line. When all is said and done, it is sugar that appears at the factory door -- where the animals and fungi wait to appropriate their share. I read somewhere that humans currently command between one-third and one-half of all the products of all terrestrial photosynthesis, as food for ourselves and our domesticated animals, or for fuel, building material, and clothing -- the lion's share, we might say, except that the lion gets slim pickings. That ratio sounds extreme to me, but then I look out my window at the grazed fields that stretch away to the horizon and it doesn't seem so far fetched.

I'm rambling. Never mind. Pass the bread and the Kerrygold butter. And I'll have another glass of wine.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

East is East, and West is West...

...and never the twain shall meet. Moslems and infidels. Christians and heathens. Whites and coloreds. Us and them. Right and wrong. Truth and falsehood. The tyranny of the discontinuous mind. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.