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Archive for November, 2012

Don’t you mess with my mother the moon

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a poor, low-res copy of the greatest photo, a poem of mine, and a recent report of a scenario involving nuking the moon, apparently considered and, I am happy to say, rejected by the military ]

First, the greatest photo:

Photo: Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941


Next, the poem:

Don’t you mess with my mother the moon!


Don’t you mess with my mother the moon!
Superb in the night sky.
Which you treat as a junkyard.


I am serious. I was never
more serious. This, which you thinking
life to be composed of things consider
real estate, rock,
subtly balances that other,

portending at the eye
that same angle — and that other, too
you would colonize,
strip, slash, mine, burn,
rape had you the chance, were it not
so magisterial a furnace.

Gold, which figures the sun
with silver the moon,
you have tapped for coinage,
despoiling hills for greed,
valleys for your convenience:
nor is your idiocy limited in reach
by anything but your idiocy.

Sun and moon are married
in a wedding you cannot conceive,
to which you lack invitation
though it was offered you.
The simple light of the night sky
escapes you, neither glimpse
nor sonata troubles your soul with its ripples,

for you lack, altogether,


I wrote that poem quite a few years ago, and intended it as an appeal from the side of joyous poetic appreciation against the prevalent idea that the moon is a chunk of rock to be mined and otherwise exploited like any other. I didn’t suppose then that my voice would be heard against the amplified voices of technology, commerce, and human hubris—but voices will be voices, even in the wilderness.

The Japanese have a tradition of “moon-viewing” festivals — Tsukimi – a superb idea, appropriately reflective of the culture that produced the zen poet Ryokan, who celebrated a thief’s visit to pillage his mountain hermitage with the words:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window.

The thief couldn’t steal it — but boyo, we still might be able to figure out a way to mess it up…


I for one don’t ever want to look at the moon and know that someone is using it as a projection screen for advertisements, let alone that its face is disfigured by robotic factories producing cheap running shoes – bad enough that we’ve left our trash there already!

Credit: NASA / Orbiter shows trash, tracks at Apollo moon landing sites

Look, my techno-leaning human friends — mine the asteroid belt if you must, I suppose Disney will eventually get the rights to Saturn, and make a ride of it – but leave the moon, leave the moon alone.


Then, the scenario:

I mean, how myopic can we get? According to Forbes yeaterday:

There’s a couple of preposterous reports out today alleging that the United States considered blowing up the moon in order to freak out the Soviets during the Cold War. Apparently something called “A Study of Lunar Research Flights” seriously pondered a moon bombing, and scientists as notable as Carl Sagan were even involved in planning the lunar attack, which was to take place in 1959 — before cooler heads prevailed.

Yup. There was a scenario — not a plan but a scenario — that was being explored: A STUDY OF LUNAR RESEARCH FLIGHTS:

Nuclear detonations in the vicinity of the moon are considered in this report along with scientific information which might be obtained from such explosions. The military aspect is aided by investigation of space environment, detection of nuclear device testing, and capability of weapons in space. A study was conducted of various theories of the moon’s structure and origin, and a description of the probable nature of the lunar surface is given. The areas discussed in some detail are optical lunar studies, seismic observations, lunar surface and magnetic fields, plasma and magnetic field effects, and organic matter on the moon.

I’ve corrected a spelling error, but otherwise that’s the abstract, as found within the .mil domain. I haven’t seen the document itself, but the abstract speaks for itself.

And no, as far as I can tell, the scenario didn’t involve “blowing up” the moon, which would have been pretty difficult as the Forbes article indicates. Apparently, though, some part of the military-industrial machine explored, discussed, and finally rejected the idea of hitting the moon with a single nuke — enough to switch a light-bulb on, it was hoped, above the Soviet military-industrial head.


And finally:

I’ve dragged this poem out of retirement, and hereby give you permission to reproduce it in toto, with or without the rest of this post — and indeed encourage you do to so. Tweet and RT the URL for this post, repost the poem, agree with me, disagree —

This latest revelation makes me feel it’s time for a conversation about convenience, commerce and science vs beauty, reverence and awe — about what the moon is worth to us.

It’s my birthday, do me a favor — spread the word: Don’t you mess with my mother the moon!

The Sounds of Silence and Your Own Mind

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Scott Shipman had an excellent book review post An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941 — a review-lite and a few questions in which he discussed the intellectual seriousness and evolution of war planner   Major Albert C. Wedemeyer as a military officer and strategist:

….Wedemeyer was an honor graduate of the Command and General Staff College, and his performance earned him the opportunity to attended the Kriegsakademie, the German staff college. However, coupled with impressive academic preparations, Kirkpatrick writes that Wedemeyer’s curiosity exposed him to a “kaleidoscope” of ideas and methods. Kirkpatrick summed-up Wedemeyer: “Competence as a planner thus emerged as much from conscientious professional study as from formal military education…” Going on to say:

In common with many of his peers, much of Wedemeyer’s professional and intellectual education was less the product of military schooling than of personal initiative and experience in the interwar Army.

Wedemeyer’s intellectual development was purposeful and paid off. In Wedemeyer’s deep study of his profession he used the prescribed paths, but also explored on his own. How common is that today? 

As often happens, the discussion can take an unexpected turn in the comments section. Lexington Green weighed in with this:

Think about George Marshall in China, traveling around on horseback.  No cell phone, no email.  The man could actually think.  Or Eisenhower meeting with Fox Connor to talk about the books Connor had him read. Telephone calls were not even common.  The military might do well to have two days once a quarter of silent retreats, only emergency communication permitted, with literally no unnecessary conversation, for groups of officers and non-coms, with some assigned reading and some self-selected on the same theme, then an open discussion after dinner. It would cost virtually nothing and would be an intellectual and mental oasis, and some good ideas might come out of it.  Religious silent retreats which last a couple of days and are truly life-restoring. This would probably be useful as well.

That in turn provoked this response from Marshall:

My sense is that many of us live, work, and fraternize in a culture of crisis. Everything is urgent. One response is to just shut off the moment we get some downtime. TV, drinking, schlock fiction, immersion in pop culture, video games, blog reading are some of the ways I’ve coped. I grew out of those as timewasters as I realized that I no longer had time to shut off if I wanted to do something.

But I still live in a culture of crisis. Almost everybody around me “has no time”. It doesn’t really matter what is being proposed, the sense of urgency kills all ambition toward progress. Defending myself and my space form this is a daily challenge – and some days I lose.

I’m visiting family this week on a long-scheduled “vacation” that has been interrupted by my office several times already, but always with the promise, “just this thing, Marshall, we don’t want to take you away from your family”. And these are the people I choose as my allies!

The culture of crisis doesn’t believe in people’s choices. It says that time will only be wasted, so we have to keep our people busy. After all, see how they spend their “free” time? Dissolute wastrels the lot of them. And then the culture of crisis tells us that we need to recharge by shutting off our minds. You need to vege out, man, you’re stressed; turn on the TV and have a beer, mate. Or else fire up your e-mail and write six more. And, hey, sorry about your insomnia, but it lets you get a jump on the day, amirite? [….]

The discussion moved on, but I have been mulling upon this exchange ever since.

The first thing that came to mind is that what we mean by “silence” really isn’t silent, what is really meant is that there is an absence of human voice pulling at our limited capacity for attention. Cognitive load is probably a real, if variable, limit on human cognition and the nature of hyperconnected information society is that all too frequently we are -and feel – “overloaded”.

When human voices are absent the “background” environmental noise comes “forward” , natural (wind through trees, animals etc) or mechanical (various humms and clicks) that we unconsciously tune out as a matter of routine focusing on conversation or distracting hearsay, broadcasts and so on. The processing in the brain is significantly different depending on what kinds of sounds you are listening to, for example:

1. Listening to Music

2. Listening to Language

3. Listening to unpleasant sounds (nails on chalkboard etc.)

So eliminating human speech from your environment but not hearing (earplugs) itself allows other regions of your brain to become more active than usual, depending on whatever else you may be doing at the time (walking, chopping wood, smelling a flower, scanning the horizon and so on).  Your brain’s performance and how it varies when thinking under conditions of different combinations and levels of sensory stimuli – “crossmodal processing” – is not yet well understood as research is in early stages of investigation.

I will speculate here that what is important for enriching your thinking is that taking your brain out a linguistic-saturated environment (let’s include the “soundless noise” of intruding textual symbols as well from smartphones, iPads, laptops)  gives it an opportunity to operate differently for a time and establish new neuronal network patterns of activity. Various forms of meditation – which involves both silence and an intentional modulation of attention – also  alters normal  brain activity.

I will now go further out on a data-free analytical limb and hypothesize that making a practice of “silence” and/or meditation might improve your thinking by making moments of creative insight more likely. Studies on insight tend to show that as a cognitive event, insight  comes about as a kind of a “pulse” of activity and relaxation in the brain:

….Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. Jung-Beeman became interested in the nature of insight in the early nineteen-nineties, while researching the right hemisphere of the brain. Mentions Jonathan Schooler. Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A. Problems)—solved. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG (electroencephalography) testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. Mentions Joy Bhattacharya and Henri Poincaré. The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.

Another interesting data point to consider re: “silence” and insight is that the mental illness of schizophrenia, where delusions and other mental “noise” exists is significantly negatively correlated with insight.  Researchers are currently investigating if meditation can ease the symptoms of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

For myself, I find my best ideas come via insight when I am doing something primarily physical requiring steady but not all of my concentration and I am alone – working out, walking the dog, a household chore and so on. Relatively useful ideas can happen when I am reading or writing or debating (i.e. interacting with a text or a person), but they tend to be analytic and derivative, sort of an intellectual “tweaking” or “tinkering” but not ones that are fundamentally creative or synthesizing.

Lexington Green may be right – Silence is golden.


The Deep Shadow of Abraham Lincoln

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Just saw the Steven Spielberg epic Lincoln.  

The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln was titanic; all the anger and villainous darkness he channeled into his earlier memorable characters Bill “the Butcher” and Daniel Plainview are eclipsed in his Lincoln by wisdom and a transcendent, melancholic grace. The supporting cast was equally strong, with Sally Fields alluding in word and deed to the shrewish madness that troubled First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones humanized – probably more than is historical – the implacable political ferocity of Radical Republican leader Representative Thaddeus Stevens; and James Spader added lighthearted realism as Secretary of State Seward’s cagey political fixer and bagman, William N. Bilboe.

Spielberg has done a magnificent storytelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States and he has done even better at capturing Lincoln’s towering stature as a statesman. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is Periclean – in possession of heroic, historical vision and mastery of grand strategy along with an intimate grasp of the granular, grubby mechanics of political deal making and a humane tolerance of other’s frailties needed to make things happen.  The scene where Day-Lewis explains to his squabbling Cabinet Lincoln’s coup d’oeil –  the real Constitutional, moral, military and political exigencies of emancipation governing the imperative questions of the 13th Amendment –  is one of the most brilliant expositions of strategy in the fusion of policy, politics and war that I have ever seen on screen.

In a sense, that was the genius of Abraham Lincoln – surpassing his own humble origins to solve herculean problems without ever losing sight that lasting resolution of Civil War and slavery were going to have to occur on Earth with fallible human beings, operating in a political reality that would never be ideal. The limits of vision of Lincoln’s contemporaries, copperhead and abolitionist, is marked but the comparison between Abraham Lincoln and politicians of our own day is yet for the worse.  Our problems are so much smaller, our resources and capabilities infinitely vaster than the severe test the Republic faced in Lincoln’s time, yet our leaders are grossly inadequate even to these.

Martyrdom naturally magnified the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, but even without the assassination he would have still been reckoned our greatest president, one of the rare individuals whose leadership made an irreplaceable mark upon history. If one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination had become president in 1860 instead, or had Lincoln not been re-elected in 1864, the Union cause would have failed.  We would not be who we are nor the world what it is without a United States in the 20th century to stem the tide of  first German domination, then Fascism and then Soviet Communism. The world would be a poorer, darker place and we would be lesser peoples of lesser nations of the former United States.

Lincoln’s shadow is not merely long, it is deep.

Xi Jinping

Monday, November 26th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Xi Jinping quotes an unnamed “ancient Chinese military strategist” and I respond with Laozi — this one’s for Raff Pantucci ]


According to Reuters today, Xi used his quote (above, top) in a speech in 2000, while governor of Fujian province. If anyone can identify the “ancient Chinese military strategist” and reference the original source of Xi‘s quote, I’d appreciate a heads up. My version of the Laozi is from Ursula le Guin‘s translation, chapter 43.

The Church of England stress-tested

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — of integrity and flexibility in that most curious chameleon of a religious institution, the Church of England, of which I am still fond at a distance ]


The Church of England is run, if that’s the word, by the three houses of its General Synod, and just this week the the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy voted to approve the ordination of women bishops, while the House of Laity voted against the idea — and since all three houses have a veto, carried the day.

Be it noted that there are in fact women priests in the Church of England, and women bishops in other parts of the Anglican Communion of which the Church of England is the mother province.

In the Church of England, however, a woman is still barred from being ordained a bishop.


There’s a Church of England blogger I follow to catch the more conservative slant on things — he calls himself Archbishop Cranmer after a celebrated Anglican divine — and in a recent post titled Church of England remains a bit more Catholic, His Grace remarked:

The Church of England is historical and so mortal. It is a creature of continual creation; of adaptability in religio-political fluidity. It opposes immutability in theological expression, recognising that mobility is intrinsic to mortality: as believers are continually converted to God, there must be continual conversion to the nature of the Church, and those confessional bodies must be mutable, for none possesses exclusive ownership of the identity of Christ.

The Church of England was never designed to be Protestant, though it has elements of that movement within it. And it was certainly not Roman Catholic, though it drew on the strengths of that denomination to manifest the Church in a visible society. Its struggle has ever been how to permit freedom of the Spirit within ancient structures: how to put new wine into old wineskins.

This is why the Archbishop of York is right when he says there will be women bishops, because Anglicanism is a communion, and in that koinonia is toleration of mutual exclusives.

That’s an interesting formulation: toleration of mutual exclusives.

Cranmer winds up that particular post with the words:

You may hear talk of splits and schisms, but these are nothing more than the spats of human mortality. For as long as we can examine what sort of church we are and question our core principles and values, there will be discussion, debate, tears and joy. The moment we cease to disagree and hurt each other is the moment the church ceases to be church.

And that too is interesting — especially in view of St Paul‘s exhortation in Philippians 2:2:

Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.


I believe Cranmer is right, and that the Church of England was indeed intended to house a variety of views, some of them tending Catholic, some tending Protestant.

But what I find most interesting here is his sense that the church quite properly opposes immutability in theological expression, recognising that mobility is intrinsic to mortality — because here we are coming very close to Christ‘s identification —

I am the way, the truth, and the life…

read in the light of Lao Tse‘s dictum —

The way that can be put into words isn’t the true Way.


And remembering always that CS Lewis once asked:

Is not the Tao the Word Himself, considered from a particular point of view?

and that Fr. Thomas Merton quotes with approval Dr Wu‘s “well-known Chinese translation of the New Testament” in which the Prologue to St John’s Gospel begins:

In the beginning was the Tao.


One other point.

A day or two after the vote in General Synod, His Grace posted an extensive excerpt from the parliamentary questions raised for Sir Tony Baldry MP to respond to, as Second Church Estates Commissioner. One such question was raised by Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): ‘

Does he agree that when the decision-making body of the established Church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society that it represents, its position as the established Church must be called into question?

To my minds, that’s an extraordinary question, and in the comments section of His Grace’s blog, one D. Singh said:

Your Grace

It is written: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’

Romans 12:2

One would have thought that after the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis for his unwillingness to go along with “decision-making body of the established Church” — in his case, the Lutheran Church in Germany at the time — a little more thought might need to be given before such a question was raised…


Oh, and somewhat amusingly, if you are inclined to be amused at such things — when Sir Tony Baldry addressed the House of Commons on the topic of women bishops — an idea whose time he clearly believed was long overdue — he was wearing the tie of London’s distinguished Garrick Club.

A private club close to London’s theatrical district, where:

‘actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms’, where ‘patrons of the drama and its professors were to be brought together’, and where ‘easy intercourse was to be promoted between artists and patrons’…

Oh, and which to this day does not admit women as members.

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