Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interspecies Love

Recently I saw a video on YouTube that shows kittens and dogs meeting for the first time.

The video is incredibly sweet, and watching these natural enemies play together made me think that humans are bringing about an incredible new thing on this planet: interspecies love and affection. Without the influence of humans, these cats and dogs would never be snuggling together for naps or playing games.
Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows that animals are loving, caring, loyal, trusting, and forgiving. But in the wild, animals can usually only share this love with members of their own species. There are the rare examples of animals caring for members of another species in the wild, but from what I can find these are usually cases where a mother has adopted an infant.
But when animals get domesticated, because they no longer have to worry about survival, particularly obtaining food, they are freed up to express empathy and take care of other animals. This article gives examples of some unlikely pairings, including an orangutan caring for tiger cubs, a male pig with a lamb, and a chihuahua with a marmoset (great pictures at the website). The book Unlikely Friendships, by National Geographic magazine writer Jennifer Holland, documents 47 stories of interspecies relationship, including the Biblical lion lying down with the lamb: a female lion adopted a baby antelope at a nature reserve in Kenya.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Capital, by Thomas Piketty, review

I have heard it said this is a difficult book, and I disagree—I found it a pleasure to read. Piketty is a good writer and explains economic terms and concepts very clearly. The only thing required of a reader is the patience to read page after page of descriptions of wealth in various times. I have no training in economics, so if you want an economist’s review of this book, check out Paul Krugman’s review in the New York Review of Books. However, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of economics in politics and history, so I have attempted to educate myself. This then is the impression of Capital by a semi-educated layperson.
Piketty has analyzed an unprecedented amount of data on wealth and has come to the conclusion that there is a fundamental mathematical equation that not only explains income and wealth inequality, but also explains why it will always tend to increase and concentrate over time.
This equation is r > g, where r stands for rate of return on capital and g stands for growth of the overall economy. For most of the period for which there are statistics (beginning about 1800), r has been greater than g, and this means capital increases seemingly without limit during these periods.
Much of the 20th century was an anomaly because of the two world wars and the Great Depression. First, these events destroyed vast amounts of wealth, particularly in Europe. Second, they also impacted the values of r and g. The US and Britain pioneered the concept of confiscatory taxes at the highest income levels—up to 90%, which reduced r, the rate of return on capital. In addition, there was a great deal of rebuilding to be done in Europe, an arms race in the US to finance, and an explosion of consumer products for the new middle-class to purchase (telephone, radio, washing machine, refrigerator, car, television, computer), which greatly inflated g, the growth rate. For a few decades after 1950 the basic equation of capitalism was reversed—g was greater than r. This automatically lowered income inequality, and created the false impression that capitalism had been tamed and wealth inequality was a relic of the past.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Flower Clock

On this first day of the year that is longer (the day after the winter solstice), I’m thinking of time. Recently I heard of an idea for a living clock. Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the biologist who developed the two-word naming system for biology, noticed that plants opened and closed their flowers at predictable times during the day and night. In other words, plants, like animals, have internal biological clocks.

For example, Goat’s Beard (Tragopogon pratensis) flowers open at 3 am, while Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) flowers open at 5 am. Linnaeus realized that you could tell time by looking at which plants’ flowers were open. After researching and planting a wide variety of plants, he was able to tell time to within a half hour, just by observing his flowers. Linnaeus drew a diagram of a plant clock, but it appears he never actually planted one.

I think this would be a lot of fun to try. This article has a diagram with plants that grow here in North America, like morning glories (open at 10 am) and California poppy (open at 1 pm). This article has information about making your own garden, as does this, and both have a list of many plants and their flowering time.

I haven’t been able to find photos of anyone who has successfully planted a living clock, so if you know of any please let me know! Supposedly there is one at the University of Uppsala, in Sweden, where Linnaeus lived, but I haven’t been able to find photos of it. They do have a “Linnaeus garden” in their botanical gardens.

Monday, December 15, 2014


What is reality? Is the physical reality we see around us all there is?
Most scientists insist that there is nothing but the physical, material universe. They reject any talk of a reality that can’t be measured empirically with scientific instruments. If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.
Lately it has become popular in science to talk of a multi-dimensional reality beyond the four-dimensional universe (space plus time) we’re all familiar with. For example, string theory, a branch of physics, posits ten or eleven dimensions of spacetime (or twenty-six or…). The books I’ve read about string theory (The Hidden Reality and Hyperspace) explain that the reason we can’t perceive these other dimensions of reality is because they are really really small—the theory says these other dimensions must be “curled up” into some tiny space smaller than our measuring devices can detect. (See this Nova article or this short essay by the author of Hyperspace, Dr. Michio Kaku)
People who are spiritually inclined talk about angels or higher beings that exist on another plane of existence. Others talk about higher levels or dimensions of consciousness. There seems to be a common attitude among spiritual seekers that the physical reality we live in is an illusion or dream, and that the spiritual realm or higher dimensions are reality.
I think these views about reality are mistaken, and there’s a fabulous allegory called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions that explains why I believe this. Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, is a short novel published in 1884. Mr. Abbott provides a very useful way to imagine how other dimensions can exist by creating a two-dimensional society called “Flatland.” [Read the full book online, see Carl Sagan discuss it.]

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Life: A God-class Roller Coaster

I love roller coasters. When I go to an amusement park the roller coaster is usually the only ride that interests me. Many years ago, I went with my stepdaughter to Opryland, a park near Nashville, and a big thunderstorm came through. We decided to stay at the park and wait out the storm. Almost everyone else left so, once the storm was over, we had the unusual experience of having an amusement park to ourselves. My stepdaughter liked a ride with twirling swings that wasn’t too far from the roller coaster, so I left her there—she never even had to get off the swing between rides—and headed over to my favorite. This was a corkscrew coaster, meaning you spent time upside down. I rode it six times in a row with no waiting; what a fabulous experience!
Why are roller coasters and other extreme rides at amusement parks and fairs so popular? Why do we pay to be scared? Clearly many of us like to experience the simulation of approaching death. Why is this, when our whole animal nature is programmed to survive at all costs?
The message of my husband and my book, The Game of God, (newly revised), is that one reason the universe exists is to allow unlimited God to experience the roller coaster of life, the ups and downs of limited existence, which eminently includes life and death. In the first chapter (read it here, complete with cartoons) Arthur and I imagine someone who “has it all,” who is rich, beautiful, and powerful beyond measure, who has no problems, who is perfectly healthy, and best of all is immortal. That is, someone who is as close to being unlimited as possible.  We ask, “Would there be any experiences this person would miss?”
We conclude there would be plenty of missed experiences: from adventure to learning, from falling in love to anticipation of something new, from struggle to triumph, from fear of dying to the joy of aliveness. Even riding a roller coaster would lose its excitement if there were no possibility of risk:

Cartoon by Arthur Hancock, from The Game of God

Recently I saw an old Twilight Zone episode called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” This is from a short story by Ambrose Pierce set during the U.S. Civil War. The TV episode begins with a group of soldiers preparing to hang a man from a bridge. The soldiers pull the board that is holding him up out from under his feet, but the rope around his neck breaks and he is free! He stays under water as the current of the creek carries him away out of range of the soldiers’ rifles. Once he’s out of sight he climbs up onto the bank and you can see he feels profoundly alive; he appreciates the simplest things: breathing, smelling flowers, and the song of birds. Only at the end do you realize that the rope didn’t break; he did die. The “escape” was a fantasy that happened in the few seconds between the platform being removed and his death. But in those seconds he lived.
Somewhere I heard a story about Civil War veterans that also illustrates this idea that the edge of death brings about a passionate experience of life (maybe it was from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”?). These veterans were imagining heaven, and this was their conception: every day they would fight a battle, then every evening every soldier—including those who had “died”—would gather and tell stories around the campfire. On the surface this seems completely bizarre—who would want to recreate brutal, bloody battles in heaven? But once you see the link between risk-of-death and the buzzing energy of aliveness, their fantasy makes sense. For these men, the most alive they ever felt was on the battlefield.
This wisdom is embedded in many spiritual traditions. For example, the Tao te Ching teaches that we live in a dualistic universe of opposites, and that pairs of opposites arise together, they are linked. We begin the first chapter of The Game of God with a quote from the Tao:
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy compliment each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Cartoon by Arthur Hancock, from The Game of God
There is a Zen story that answers the question “What is Zen?” (see below): A man is in a jungle. A tiger spots him and chases him to a cliff. The man lowers himself down on a vine until he hears another tiger below. As he’s hanging there, with death above and below, two mice, a black one and a white one, start chewing on his vine. Facing certain death, he notices a wild strawberry plant near him and, plucking a berry and eating it, says, “How sweet.” In other words, the message of Zen is: experience every moment fully because death is always lurking. 
Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui Indian shaman in the Carlos Castaneda series, taught Carlos that he should make friends with his death.
When we deny death, ironically we deny life. We end up taking life for granted. We don’t see the perfection in every moment. We think of death as the worst thing that can happen to us, yet it makes life meaningful.
The Game of God presents the theory that the first purpose of the universe is to allow unlimited God the experience of limitation—life and death, beginning and end, fear and hate, happiness and sorrow, ignorance and learning.
In order to have a realistic experience of limitation, God must forget that She-He-It is God. In other words, the universe is God…in a state of amnesia.
The universe is a game in which God forgets His-Her-Its identity and, in the process of playing, remembers who She-He-It is.
Evolution is the process of God awakening from amnesia into the remembrance of His-Her-Its true identity.
The universe is literally An Expression Of God In Amnesia (AEOGIA). And God likes roller coasters!

Zen, by Arthur Hancock:

Monday, December 1, 2014

Following Point of View to Understanding

In 2007 my family gathered to celebrate my 50th birthday. My nieces were aged 4 and 5. I bought them some inexpensive digital cameras thinking it would be fun to see what kind of images they would create.

Unfortunately the cameras didn’t take very good photos and it looks like we deleted most of them. But it was really interesting looking at their photos at the time, and I did save a couple:  

I was reminded of these photos by an article in The New Yorker about the GoPro camera, “We Are a Camera,” by Nick Paumgarten. The GoPro is a small HD video camera with different mounts that can be affixed to all kinds of sporting equipment. Mr. Paumgarten says an interesting feature of this camera is that
because it primarily points outward it’s a record of what an experience looks like…The result is not so much a selfie as a worldie. It’s more like the story you’d tell about an adventure than the photo that would accompany it.
The author’s son won a GoPro in a school raffle, and
On a ski vacation that spring, he affixed it to the top of his helmet…Even though the camera was turned outward, filled mainly by the sight of the terrain sliding past, it provided, more than anything, a glimpse into the mind of a dreamy and quiet boy…I didn’t need a camera to show me what he looked like to the world, but was delighted to find one that could show me what the world looked like to him. It captured him better than any camera pointed at him could. This was a proxy, of sorts.