Question of the Day

How much of our productive effort is spent on individual solutions to problems that we create collectively?



Think for yourself

If we want to know the truth about anything, we have no choice but to sift through a great deal of nonsense, to consider the outrageous in all its implications.  In the face of group-think and manipulation of opinion, it is essential to develop a powerfully independent power of judgment.

All ideas fall in one of two categories:

  • Ideas that are probably wrong, and
  • Ideas that are certainly boring.

—Jon F Wilkins, Ronin Institute

Life is stranger than any of us expected.
Richard Eberhart

A major life lesson for me has been how easy it is to convince myself that I am thinking independently when in fact I have been led into common fallacies by a peer group that claims to be thinking independently.

What are viruses good for?

It’s viruses that can make us sick with a cold or flu, chickenpox or shingles, herpes, and hepatitis.  Some viruses increase risk of cancer.  You knew all this.

But viruses are very specialized to attack just one particular kind of cell.  Most viruses, in fact, are specialized to attacking the most available life forms, and by far the largest biomass on earth is bacteria.  A virus that attacks bacteria is called a bacteriophage.

In a journal article published yesterday, scientists at Yale reported the first use of bacteriophages to cure a patient of bacterial disease.  We have known for decades that bacteria are evolving resistance to our antibiotics faster than we are developing new antibiotics.  If humanity is to avoid a return of diseases banished long ago, we will need a new weapon against bacterial disease.  Bacteriophages may be an answer.

A Connecticut doctor suffered from an infection after he received an aortic arch replacement operation and required massive doses of antibiotics to keep him alive. But the bacteria infecting his heart, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, had developed a resistance to drug treatment. His physician, Dr. Deepak Narayan, was then contacted by research scientist Benjamin Chan who had been screening natural samples for bacteriophage to see if these viruses might be effective against drug-resistant infections. He told Narayan that a virus-hunting expedition at Dodge Pond in Connecticut netted a bacteriophage with affinity for Pseudomonas aeruginosa and suggested that experimental phage therapy might be used to combat the infection.

Read more at ScienceBlog


Oliver Wendell Holmes was a scholar and a poet and a philosopher, sitting on our very own Supreme Court. It was a time when there was some overlap between culture and politics.

“Utilitarianism” is the secular moral philosophy that says there are no absolutes of right and wrong, but society’s managers can seek to arrange things so as to promote the general welfare—“the greatest good for the greatest number”.

Holmes uses the word “bettabilitarianism” to describe “the idea that the world is loose at the joints, that indeterminism plays a real role in the world.” It’s derived from utilitarianism plus the idea that we need to play the odds, recognizing our ignorance about the way things will unfold.

“We can never know anything for certain; we can only place bets one way or another. Like any gambler, however, we should gather as much information as possible before wagering our money or our lives. Only then can we be confident in the bets we have made”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was born on this day in 1841.

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Laughter is the Most Sincere form of Prayer

Evelyn Underhill writes about the lives of great souls from all religious traditions (and none at all) who have been motivated to great disciplines, survived hardships, seen visions, and fell back into the “dark night of the soul” At the end of the journey, each of them is “back where she started, and knows the place for the first time.” The mundane is joined to the sacred, and they find enduring joy in lives of simple service.

That fruition of joy of constitutes the interior life of mystic souls immersed in the Absolute—the translation of the Beatific Vision into the terms of a supernal feeling-state—is often realized in the secret experience of those same mystics, as the perennial possession of a childlike gaiety, an inextinguishable gladness of heart. The transfigured souls move to the measures of a “love dance” which persists in mirth without comparison, through every outward hardship and tribulation. They enjoy the high spirits peculiar to high spirituality: and shock the world by a delicate playfulness, instead of exhibiting the morose resignation which it feels to be proper to the “spiritual life.”… Moreover, the most clear-sighted amongst the mystics declare such joy to be an
implicit of Reality.

“Men are made for happiness, and any one who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.”
— Dostoyevsky (Brothers Karamazov)

Half the Earth

E. O. Wilson has been a friendly, expert voice championing species conservation for more decades than I can recall.  He has initiated a project to catalog the estimated 10 million species that our planet harbors, most of them still unknown and unnamed.

This week he explains his plan to set aside half the earth as a wildlife preserve.   And it can’t be the half that’s least useful to us!

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life
Read from the New York Timeselephants_at_amboseli_national_park_against_mount_kilimanjaro

We are playing a global endgame. Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong; it is growing weaker. Freshwater is growing short; the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish, and fungi. For many species, these changes are already fatal.   …Read more

Capitalism and its Alternatives

Everything is reduced to money.  Ecosystems, kidneys for transplant, a ton of mercury in the air over Philadelphia, a human life, an extinct species, your health, a good night’s sleep, a pile of nuclear waste that will last for 20,000 years—all these things are routinely valued in dollars. The idea that there is a single scale that can be used to compare the value of everything is so familiar to us that we might forget that it is absurd.  We might forget that capitalism by its nature steamrollers over anything that we might regard as too precious to place on the auction block.

Indian economist Amartya Sen has devoted a long career to telling us why capitalism inevitably leads to moral travesty, and finally in the last 20 years he has found respectability and recognition.  At least in some circles, people are starting to recognize that there are alternatives.

Read Tim Rogan’s AEON article about Amartya Sen and the history of critiques of capitalism.