Friday, July 21, 2006

Proof

Why do we feel the need to prove things? What does it even mean to “prove” something? “To prove” comes from the Latin “to be in favor of,” so there is an element of contention in proof, as in courtrooms, scientific theories, and political ideas. And from the contention comes the concept that “proven” statements are, by definition, true. The question then becomes, how could a mere human be expected to know if something is true? Thankfully we don’t have to prove things in daily life. If I say, “Hey, I saw Margaret at the store this morning,” you would probably not demand that I prove it. It’s a good thing, too, because how would I prove it? I could say, “Because I saw her with my own eyes,” but you could respond, “You may have hallucinated it, or you might have seen Margaret’s twin sister,” to which I would respond, “Well, there were several witnesses there who will swear that Margaret was at the store and that I appeared to have seen her,” to which you might respond, “Oh yeah, well I have five witnesses who will swear that Margaret never set foot in that store,” and I might then respond that I took Margaret’s picture with my cell phone, to which you could rejoin, “You might have doctored the picture with photo-shop.” At this point I would call Margaret, or better yet drive you to her house, and ask her directly if she had seen me at the store this morning. If she replied “Yes,” I would feel I had “proven” that Margaret and I met at the store, though of course you could then question Margaret’s veracity or sanity.

The fact is, as renowned epistemologists have “proven”- at least to my satisfaction- you can’t prove things. What we mean by “proof” is “support,” so that you support your contention by giving indications that it is correct, but you don’t “prove” it in the sense that you have shown it to be true in some absolute sense.

There does seem to be a special situation in mathematics, where such propositions as the Pythagorean theorem appear to be established with an unusually high degree of certainty. Perhaps they are "proven" in some sense, although it may be that all that's proven is that we lack the brains to disprove them. Apropos of this, the Sept. , 2006 issue of NewScientist, in an aritcle entitled "Burden of proof," states that "mathematicians [in the modern realm of extensive computer mediated proofs] are finding it increasingly difficult to decide whether or not something has been proved," and are "beginning to engage with the increasingly complex issue of what exactly constitutes a proof." That's progress for you.

It is one of the ironies of the sport of debate, which I coach, that the debater must carry on a charade in which he or she appears to believe that a point has been proven, and that the opposition’s point has been disporoven. The judge must decide which side gave the most compelling support, but as I tell my debaters, the judge is not deciding which side is “right,” i.e. which side has “proven” something. Recently in Dallas at a National Forensic League tournament, I judged 14 straight rounds of an event called Public Forum, each round with the same resolution: “Resolved, the United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol. “ Two teams of two debaters each first flipped a coin to decide who spoke first. The winner of the coin toss also picked the side it would argue, “aff” (affirmative) or “neg” (negative). Thus the system requires that each team have extensive cases to “prove” either side. At the end of the 14 rounds, I had heard enough aff and neg on the Kyoto Protocol to write a dozen articles, but I heard no “proof.” In fact, at the end of the crash course on Kyoto I was less able to decide my own view than before. There were simply too many pros and cons to mull over.

The question then arises, how is it that in spite of the seeming improbability of proving things, virtually everyone has definite opinions on controversial issues? For instance, if I were forced to make a snap decision on Kyoto, I would say that the U.S. should sign it. Why? Because the pressure to have an opinion and make a decision has forced me to pick the side that, according to my sense of balance and aesthetics, is more appealing. Or you could adhere, as my wife does, to the maxim that “opinions are like assholes; everybody has one.”

I would like to end this piece with the story of the morning doves who nested in a hanging plant on our front porch. The plant, “Superbells Cherry Red,” a Calibrachoa hybrid (a “proven winner,” ironically claims the nursery tag), requires watering every day, so it was a problem when I noticed early one day that a placid morning dove was sitting on a new nest within the slight shelter of the Superbells. How to water the plant without disturbing Mr. and Mrs. Dove? (they took shifts tending the nest). My friend Mark suggested that I stand several feet from the pot and create a light spray with the hose to simulate a refreshing rainfall. The first time I tried this Mrs. Dove watched me and asked what I was doing. “I’m trying to water this plant without disturbing you,” I replied. “All right,” she replied, “ I’ll put up with it this time, but I don’t think I’m going to be entirely comfortable with this every day.” Of course, this conversation was not effected via verbal English; it was transmitted entirely through eye contact, for the brief moments when such contact existed.

Some days Mrs. Dove (I never knew whether I was seeing the mother or father, but generally viewed the attendant bird as the mother) did not care at all for the shower, and flew away with the characteristic staccato chirp (supposed to be caused by the wing flaps). When the expected two white eggs appeared, I decided I didn’t want to shower them directly, so I approached the nest with the hose, and tentatively raised it and its gentle stream to the lip of the pot. My concern was that the sight of the hose would trigger some basic bird fear of snakes robbing nests, but Mrs. Dove told me that she knew it was not a snake because I was holding it. She also said that although we could never be friends, and that she would never consider affection or trust between us, she did understand that I was not a threat, that I wanted coexistence, that I even, in a sense, loved her. And indeed she sat patiently while I dipped the hose over the lip and poured water into soil adjacent to the nest.

When the fledglings appeared, I continued the water ritual, but the fledglings did not like it. As their awareness grew, when I came each day with the hose the dominant of the two would puff up and flap its wings in an instinctual threat gesture. Part of me wanted to say “Oh, I’m so scared!,” but I’m an educator and patience with the young is our calling.

One morning, two weeks after the eggs had hatched, one of the parents stood on the back yard fence, at eye level with me, as I opened the gate to get the morning paper. She told me, very quickly before chirping off, that this day was different, and that our collaboration was soon to be complete. The other bird, the father, I thought, looked up at me from the center of the driveway and confirmed the message, though more brusqely. The two fledgings eyed me steadily, telling me nothing. The next time I checked, a few hours later, the fledglings were gone, as were the parents.

What’s that you’re asking, “Can you prove you had those conversations with those birds!” Good question.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pelican and Sardine Mandala

Perhaps I’ll start a personal tradition where I conjure up a new mandala each summer. Last August it came out of a cave in Mendocino. This July 3 it arrived off Pismo Beach pier. Coming down from Berkeley, where we visited our daughter, we were susceptible to suggestive elements, at least I was. Berekely is such a suggestive place anyway, where one minute you’ll be stunned by a giant redwood lurching up from someone’s tiny front yard and the next brought up short by a mad woman’s eyes. Berkeley is what Frank Lloyd Wright meant when he said L.A. is what you’d get if you tipped the nation to the left and all the loose pieces fell to the West Coast. I'd add that the pieces that couldn’t fit in L.A. would gravitate to Berkeley. So, to continue, once we were past San Jose on the drive south down the 101, the radio became dominated by rural California, with ads for “big” events in small cities, often involving cars. The biggest event, mentioned by the most stations, was the Fourth of July Fireworks at the Pismo Beach Pier, the following night. By the time we had dragged ourselves through the hot and featureless Salinas Valley (apologies to Steinbeck- our view was limited to the 101) the promise of sea breezes was irresistible, so we headed into Pismo.

Many blocks of motels surround the central city, some old, some new. The two short blocks of “downtown” had retained the charm I recalled from college days, with old two-story brick buildings and a carney atmosphere, though the old roller rink had been carved up into trendy shops. In a wink we were at the pier, and wonderful cool ocean air pummeled us. As we sauntered forth, we saw two novel sights: An evangelical group giving out free water bottles (which we gratefully drank)while proclaiming the end, and thousands of brown pelicans, wheeling in the sky, diving in groups, sitting placidly on the soft waves, and squabbling with sea gulls. The pelican crowd extended for hundreds of yards on either side of the pier. There was a variety of comment from the fishers as we walked. One woman said, “ They’ve got the whole ocean and they have to mess around here!” One was telling his partner how his fishing line had got caught around a pelican’s neck, and he had to cut the line. I found a spot next to an ol’ timer, who told me he had never seen so many pelicans together before. I searched my mind for references, perhaps in the Book of Revelations, to giant flocks of pelicans (“…and they shall fill their pouches with the fish of the sea and the sea shall become bereft therof…”?) but nothing came to mind. Then the ol’timer pointed out a cylindrical dark mass in the water, about three or four feet below the surface: sardines! I had to squint, but the dark mass slowly resolved itself into myraid black pencils, seemingly frozen in place, not even revolving slowly as they do in aquariums. I began a serious study of the hunting habits of pelicans. They like to dive in groups of three or more. Pelicans are known to herd fish into position for feeding, and they seemed to have done this, with the sardines backed up against the pilings. After most dives the pelicans surfaced with distended pouches which shimmered and vibrated from the death throes within. One bird had holes in its pouch, and sardine tails wiggled furiously out of them. The pelicans waited patiently for the fish to drown in the air, then gulped them down whole. Seagulls, unable to dive, grabbed sardines from the mouths of pelicans and darted furiously about to rob each other. The ol’timer told me that the fishermen on the pier were after "smackle"- mackerel- who swam beneath the layer of sardines. He showed me a few of his smackle, about a pound each. They looked tasty.

Then it hit me, my mandala. The pelicans whirling in formation above, diving for the sardines, snatching the life from them, as people reached through the pattern to snatch the life from the smackle on the other side. The hand of the universe feeding itself, eating itself. The picture of predation. Familiar thoughts and questions arose from the unfamiliar mandala. We call the predatory arrangement of our world a “food chain.” Why, in this chain, are the predators considered to be at the top? It’s all about energy transfer- molecules held together in unsteady formations, ready at the proper nudge to erupt in life giving rays. Would not the creatures at the top of the chain be those with the most direct access to this energy? That would be the plants, who merely bathe in manna pouring down endlessley from the sun. Herbivores come next, unable to absorb the photonic manna, but priveledged to munch it second hand from quiescent plants. The predators are the outcasts, the lowest: latecomers who can’t get any manna from light or plants, forced to steal it violently from herbivores who yield it most unwillingly. Yes, the predators are clever, for they have to steal and get away with it, but they were not clever to be predators in the first place.

As the mandala massaged my thoughts another old question surfaced: Why is there predation? It doesn’t seem particularly efficient, and it fills our world with vast amounts of terror and pain. Why didn't the biosphere evolve a system of peaceful energy transfers, where photosynthesizing plankton recombine and morph into sardines, which blossom into pelicans, while the smackle jump for joy onto the beach to become men and women. Of course, without the predatory tradition so prominent in human evolution, the smackle people would not say things like “Let's barbecue us some hippies!” but would rather gaze around, amazed at the turning of the world and the stars overhead.

Lest I should ever again be possessed of the urge to run for office, let me emphasize that I do not think the human race is in a postion, either philosophically or practically, to engineer an end to predation- just the mention of the idea here has no doubt already limited my options to Dogcatcher of Berkeley, if that. But can we at least stop this charade that those creatures who work the hardest for the energy, and face the most dire scarcity, are somehow at the “top”?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Death Valley and Maui

Death Valley and Maui

Winter break for teachers is a culture shock. After months of intensive exposure, in an institutional setting, to generations to which you have not belonged in many years, you’re suddenly free, maybe too free. I was able, this winter break, to escape my freedom twice, first via a camping trip with my 12 year old son, Connor, to Death Valley, and then a family trip to Maui.

The value of going to Death Valley is that, from the moment you slide into Antelop Valley, you have nothing. The value of nothing cannot be overstated. Without nothing, there would not be something, and there would be no way to survive the something. The word “vacation”, after all, refers to “vacancy.”

Not that Antelop Valley has nothing. It has the substantial cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, and the crossroads town of Mojave, where the 14 meets itself, and Edwards Air Force Base, where the space shuttle lands, but it’s big and wide and for the traveller has no newspaper to pick up in the driveway, no routine to automatically follow for 8 hours. I define “nothing” as the absence of familiarity and required response.

We and our traveling companions, the Robinsons, made our usual stop at the Mojave McDonalds, at about 5:00a.m., and savored the nothing over rank coffee and heated pre-packaged breakfast items. Once it snowed while we sat in there, but not this time. Then off we went in a notheasterly jag through the desert, past sparse sandy fields of Joshua tress and rocks, and the sunrise. I had planned to play Julian Bream doing Elizabethan lute as the sun came up, and might have since Connor was asleep (he hates such “gay” music, preferring rap; I often enjoy that genre, but not at dawn in the desert), but I found that the portable CD player near my seat would not play, giving me, in fact, nothing, so I listened to that and it grew on me.

After about an hour of bliss and meditation (the pose of a van driver, seated in a high upright chair, feet on floor, hands lightly closed at chest level, may serve in a pinch as a lotus position) we approached the peerless town of Trona, a miasma of chemical residue and stench, its pipes, tanks and chimneys rising up like some Tolkeinesque orc fortress in the otherwise stark and beautiful desert. You smell Trona about fifteen minutes before you see it, through the low canyon approach of Trona Road, where runs the old pipe that brought brine to the early borax and soda ash miners. It’s a sulfphurous air, a hint of man’s depredations here. Rounding the corner you see it, the town named after its product (“trona” means “Hydrated Sodium Bi-Carbonate”)- not a town really, but a string of processing plants ringing the dry lake bed, with desolate shelters for humans over the highway from the plants. Many of the shelters are deserted, their windows boarded up. The first gas station in town is also a relic. Only white smoke billowing from the high stacks indicates human habitation. Further into town are several churches and homes more neatly kept, and a real gas station.

Then comes Trona High School, an attractive campus serving teenagers from many miles around. What would it be like to teach here, I wonder? What are the kids like? Are they all white, Hispanic? Any Jews? Do they want to leave? Are they suicidal? Do they get drunk and stoned out in the desert? Are there intellectuals reading Kem Nunn or Hermann Hesse? Do they dream of San Francisco, or Hollywood? Will they carry their birthplace with them througout their lives as a badge of primal ordeal? Or do they cherish it, its mean, self-loving quality? I will never know, my experience limited to stopping for gas and savoring the steamy desert fart for 15 minutes.

Escape from Trona then ensues. Off now to the north-east, over rolling hills and narrow canyons and suddenly we lurch over a summit and face the increadibly empty Panamint Valley, the last valley before Death Valley. Panamint is emptier than Death because there is no camping. Other than a few two-lane highways, there is nothing but the vast sides of this huge space. You can almost hear yourself resonate, your soul’s vibrations echoing off the mountain walls. And, inexplicably, it’s not unpleasant when the occasional fighter jet roars over you, on maneuvers from Edwards or Nellis, because they are occasional, and novel, and seeming to carry their own meaning of teenage dreams of power and dominance, divorced from adult politics of the same. Then over Immigrant Pass, a test of your car’s cooling system, and thus a source of anxiety and a break from beauty appreciation.

Then over the top and there is Death Valley, an emptiness so big it is not marred by the several commercial centers it tolerates. The first of these , Stovepipe Wells, is a pleasant enough stop, featuring a gas station, a usefull general store, hotel, restaurant, parking lot full of RV’s and trailors. Then on we go, taking a left at the Sand Dunes, driving over the valley floor highway for about 45 minutes to Mesquite Springs camp grounds, located at the lowest point, the dry river bed, where the north and south bahadas meet. At this point the vacation, the nothing, is interrupted by the pressing need to set up camp, which involves significant physical attention to sticks and canvass and folding tables and chairs and boxes of stuff and kids who don't help because they race off in all directions, free at last.

In the midst of these opening moments came the central theme of my Death Valley story, an animal. Every year in Death Valley there is a different animal theme. We have had kangaroo rats, delightful hopping rodents who scamper across your feet as you sit around the campfire, or roadrunners who look at you politely for a bit of meat, or tarantulas who walk acceptingly across your arm. This year it was a young coyote, almost a pup. While I labored at the tent, he sauntered by like someone’s tired old dog, sitting heavily, for a pup, on the paved road about 20 feet from me, looking at me with world-weary eyes. He broadcast a clear signal into my head, clearer than spoken language: “I know you love me, what I represent. Look at me, look how I sit here before you, unprotected, unafraid, full of wisdom. Am I not the most special thing you have seen in a long time? Do you not love me? Will you not express this love by offering me food throughout your stay?”

My first thought was that the coyote would be a useful lure for Connor, pulling him into my sphere of work. Connor was indeed interested, but it was Kendall, sire of the Robinson clan, our travelling companions, who broke the spell the creature had over me. Kendall has a philosophical bent but is not quite the hippy sap that I am.

“Throw pebbles near it,” he said suspiciously, “It has to know we’re not feeding it.” No way would I do that, however. What’s so bad about wanting to be fed? Especially if you’re a Boddisatvah, a messenger from another dimension.

Soon, the tent was ready and Connor crawled in to test it out. He fell asleep, and I walked up the dry river bed. Outside the tent door was a trash bag, anchored with a rock, containg the remains of our lunch, mostly paper and crumbs. Connor awoke to a scratching sound outside the tent door, and I returned to find that the coyote had shredded the bag and devoured its edible contents. Kendall had seen the tail end of this process and tossed pebbles near the coyote, per his philosophy. Connor was sobered at the thought that the creature’s jaws and paws were two feet from his sleeping head during its foray. In the foothills of the San Fernando Valley we know coyotes from their murder of two of our cats and our two beloved chickens, Velk and Sparky, and for the newspaper accounts of toddlers mistaken for small animals whose necks are broken before the coyote realizes its mistake. But we don’t know coyotes as pscychic mauraders, the trickster gods of Native Americans. Later that day the ranger came to tell us of a young coyote that was harassing the entire campground. A lady had put her food on top of her car to temporarily keep it from the coyote while she walked to the toilet. When she got back the coyote was on top of her car, its head in the boxes. The ranger advised us to throw pebbles near the coyote, to tell it gently that we were having none of it. Kendall looked triumphantly at us.

As it happened, we saw no more of the coyote that day or the following day. But on the second night, we were contacted. Around the campfire, one of our party told stories he had heard about a single coyote’s ability to “throw its voice,” to sound like more than one coyote. We discussed the weird shrieking and yelling circles of coyotes that we hear throughout the year at home, and speculated on their purose. That night, around 3:00am, it started: a coyote song fest the likes of which I had never heard. They were close, this indederminate group, very close to the campsite, a clearly deliberate choice in the vast uninhabited valley. The song was composed, had special features. It seemed angry, resentfull, full of guile and fury, but artistic in that it had no obvious element of strategic purpose. It was a song for us, with our pebbles and our gear and our sacks of food and two-legged attitude. A song composed just for us, by crazy animals in the desert. A gift of the nothing.

Two weeks later, as vacation getaway number two loomed, I had lost some of my lust for nothing, and spent time finding things to fill the trip’s nothing, like a stack of magazines to read on the flight to Maui. One of these, the “Special Edition Scientific American, Frontiers of Physics,” gave me food for thought to supplement the snack box offered by ATA, and I quote: “The electron, the up and the down quarks, the gluon, the photon and the Higgs boson suffice to describe all the esoteric phenomena studied by particle physicists. This is not speculation akin to the ancient Greeks’ four elements of earth, air, water and fire. Rather it is a conclusion embodied in the most sophisticated mathematical theory of nature in history, the Standard Model of particle physics.”

Give me a break! As much as I love and am awed by human science, it does have a streak of arrogance and conceit that is hard to bear. I find particularly galling the contention, found in the article quoted above, that we are closer to understanding the fundamental workings of the universe than we used to be. Granted the theory of the four elements was a crock, made up, not by scientists of the day, but the same brand of snake oil salesmen endemic to our society, but what a cheap shot to hold up only the ancient claptrap in comparison to modern science, instead of the clever stuff. Question: how is speculating about up and down quarks closer to understanding the fundamental workings of the universe than figuring out, as the Polynesians did a thousand years ago, how to find Hawaii via tiny canoes over thousands of miles of uncharted ocean? Answer: they both reveal the same amount of fundamental knowledge about the universe, namely, none. “Seeing” an island hundreds of miles away by gazing in the water, or “seeing” sub-atomic particles by smashing bigger particles into each other: it’s surface reality either way. Humans are limited to mechanics, lets face it. We’re in a box and we can’t see out. My guess is that no one alive today knows if we will ever see outside this box, and that if the day comes when we do see outside it, we’ll have changed to accommodate what there is to see, to the point that we’re not “human” any more. At that point, it won’t be science or religion, or anything we have a name for. Maybe it won’t have a name.

At any rate, such were my thoughts on the flight to Maui. Speaking of Maui, it’s the most interesting of the islands, I think, because it spans old and new. It’s composed of two adjacent volcanoes, one old and extinct, the other with a foot in the hot spot (its last eruption was in 1790). My view of travel essays is that they should not bore the reader with recitations of all the cool places you saw. No one cares. Rather a travel essay should focus on the ideas you had that, presumably, you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t gone to this place. So here’s what I discovered on our trip to Maui: you can get great information from mundane or otherwise awful sources. Case in point: when I mentioned to a travel agent in the hotel that we were driving the road to Hanna that day, she gave me a CD which you were supposed to listen to as you drove along. Upon entering the rain forest, we turned on the CD and I was appalled to hear a cheery woman’s voice, chuckling at innapropriate moments, sounding very much like a pitch for Downy Softness. In my younger days I would have turned off the CD immediately, maybe even broken it into pieces and thrown it ceremoniously in the trash. But age has rendered me patient, and we let the thing drone on. In so doing we learned the following:

1. The sacred hula was danced exclusively by men. Female hula dancing was a western invention.
2. Pele, being a female deity, was not allowed to start a fire; she could tend a fire, but only men could start one.

Good stuff, huh? There was lots more of similar quality. But then you would have to endure something like this: “If you get out of your car in Pa’ai, you might be approached by some, chuckle…chuckle, unsavory characters selling, chuckle…chuckle,
‘Maui Wowie.’ My advice, chuckle…chuckle, just keep on...chuckle... walking, chuckle!” To recap the lesson from Maui: You will get valuable information from anything you listen to.
Bon voyage!