Category Archives: Philosophy

Japanese zen art – just go away

Japanese zen spiral -- it's a cartoon about meditation. It looks like a monk and a spiral, and note that both ends point inward.

Japanese zen spiral — it’s a cartoon about meditation. It looks like a monk and a spiral, and note that both ends point inward. Cute.

The purpose of art is not generally to show the world as it is, but to show a new, better way to look at the world. As such, my take on Japanese zen art, is that it is a very cool, fun way to say “just go away.” What follows are some nice (to my eyes) examples, with my commentary.

As with most Japanese art, the zen art looks simpler and more free-form than western religious art. In a sense that is true: there are far fewer lines, but the paintings take as long to make, to a good estimate, since they only appear to have been made with casual ease: flicks of the wrist and waves of the hand. In actuality the artist had a vision of what he wanted, and then made free-hand waving copy after copy until he had some correct, free-looking ones ready for delivery. Because of this, you can look for a meaning in every wiggle — something that you would not do with US free-form abstracts, or with religious paintings of the 1600s. Take daVinci’s last supper — the grand layout is clearly planned and meaningful, the details of the wrinkles, not really. With these, though, no detail is accidental, and the non-accidental sense, as I see it, is “just go away.”

Buddhist Master. I can imagine this work is effective at keeping guests from over-staying their welcome.

Buddhist Master. Art like this keeps away guests.

Take the spiral at left. It’s sort of cool, and claims to be an allusion to meditation. Mystic, no? As I look carefully a the spiral, the first remarkable thing I see is that it circles in on itself at both ends. At a simple level, I think that’s an allusion to the inward nature of meditation, but note that, at the top end of the coil there’s a wiggle that looks like a face. I take that to be a monk’s face, looking away. The geometry of the coil then suggests the legs and thighs of the rest of the monk (sitting?). If that’s the image (and I think it is) the fact that the monk is facing away from you, leaving you behind suggests to me that the owner has no desire to have you join him. I see nothing in this that would cause another person to want to meditate either. There is nothing attractively persuasive as in western religious art. Here’s an essay I wrote on meditation.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I also imagine these artists living on an industrial treadmill, making painting after painting in his shop and throwing most away because, for example, the monk’s back extended past the paper. Western expressionism also sometimes puts many paintings on a single canvas, but the hidden image stays, at least in a sort-of half shadow. And the wiggles strive to be less learned, even if the faces of some western religious art is distant –even more distant often. At right, above, you’ll find another popular zen-art approach. It shows a zen master in nearly full face. As with most zen art, the master (Buddha or a disciple) looks calm -ish with a sense of the put-upon, as if he were Christ carrying the cross of you being there. Perhaps the intent was to make you go off and meditate, or to see society as worthless, but I think the more-likely message in the master’s look is “why me Lord.” The master looks like he isn’t unhappy with life, just unhappy with you being there. I imagine that this work was placed in a noble’s living room or study for the same reason that many American today put up a picture of Yosemite Sam, sometimes (for those who don’t get art) “Keep Out! This means you.”

A monkey looks at the moon in a well. Don't touch, the moon seems to say.

A monkey looks at the moon in a well. Don’t touch, the moon seems to say.

As with the Warner-bros. classic, there is a flowing look to the brushwork, but a fair amount of detail. As with the Warner Bros. cartoon, the casual lines seem to serve the purpose of keeping the viewer from taking offense at the message. Sort of like, “Don’t go away mad, just go away.” Cool, but I also like Western cartooning.

As one last example, at left you’ll see a painting illustrating a zen parable. in this case it’s the parable of the monkey’s and the image of the moon. Shown is the moon’s reflection in the water of a well — moon is that big round face. A monkey is about to touch the moon-image, and as we can expect, when the monkey touches the image, it disappears. There are several understandings to be gained from this, e.g. that all is illusion (similar to Plato and his cave), or suggesting that it is better to look at life than to interact with it. Which is the main meaning? In this picture, my sense is that the moon seems put-upon, and afraid. Thus, the lesson I take from the picture is one of inaction: “don’t touch the reflection.” Once again, the choice to depict a frightened moon rather than an impassive one, seems to be the painter’s way of saying “please go away.” Very cool image, but as messages go, that’s the one I see in most Japanese zen art.

Robert Buxbaum, August 17, 2017. I’ve also written on surreal art (I like it a lot, and find it ‘funny’) and on Dada, and conceptual (I like it too, playfully meaningful, IMHO). If you like zen jokes (and who doesn’t) here’s a story of the Buddhist and the hot-dog vendor, and how many zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb? Four. See why.

Heraclitus and Parmenides time joke

From Existential Commics

From Existential Comics; Parmenides believed that nothing changed, nor could it.

For those who don’t remember, Heraclitus believed that change was the essence of life, while  Parmenides believed that nothing ever changes. It’s a debate that exists to this day in physics, and also in religion (there is nothing new under the sun, etc.). In science, the view that no real change is possible is founded in Schrödinger’s wave view of quantum mechanics.

Schrödinger's wave equation, time dependent.

Schrödinger’s wave equation, time dependent.

In Schrödinger’s wave description of reality, every object or particle is considered a wave of probability. What appears to us as motion is nothing more than the wave oscillating back and forth in its potential field. Nothing has a position or velocity, quite, only random interactions with other waves, and all of these are reversible. Because of the time reversibility of the equation, long-term, the system is conservative. The wave returns to where it was, and no entropy is created, long-term. Anything that happens will happen again, in reverse. See here for more on Schrödinger waves.

Thermodynamics is in stark contradiction to this quantum view. To thermodynamics, and to common observation, entropy goes ever upward, and nothing is reversible without outside intervention. Things break but don’t fix themselves. It’s this entropy increase that tells you that you are going forward in time. You know that time is going forward if you can, at will, drop an ice-cube into hot tea to produce lukewarm, diluted tea. If you can do the reverse, time is going backward. It’s a problem that besets Dr. Who, but few others.

One way that I’ve seen to get out of the general problem of quantum time is to assume the observed universe is a black hole or some other closed system, and take it as an issue of reference frame. As seen from the outside of a black hole (or a closed system without observation) time stops and nothing changes. Within a black hole or closed system, there is constant observation, and there is time and change. It’s not a great way out of the contradiction, but it’s the best I know of.

Predestination makes a certain physics and religious sense, it just doesn't match personal experience very well.

Predestination makes a certain physics and religious sense, it just doesn’t match personal experience very well.

The religion version of this problem is as follows: God, in most religions, has fore-knowledge. That is, He knows what will happen, and that presumes we have no free will. The problem with that is, without free-will, there can be no fair judgment, no right or wrong. There are a few ways out of this, and these lie behind many of the religious splits of the 1700s. A lot of the humor of Calvin and Hobbes comics comes because Calvin is a Calvinist, convinced of fatalistic predestination; Hobbes believes in free will. Most religions take a position somewhere in-between, but all have their problems.

Applying the black-hole model to God gives the following, alternative answer, one that isn’t very satisfying IMHO, but at least it matches physics. One might assume predestination for a God that is outside the universe — He sees only an unchanging system, while we, inside see time and change and free will. One of the problems with this is it posits a distant creator who cares little for us and sees none of the details. A more positive view of time appears in Dr. Who. For Dr. Who time is fluid, with some fixed points. Here’s my view of Dr. Who’s physics.  Unfortunately, Dr. Who is fiction: attractive, but without basis. Time, as it were, is an issue for the ages.

Robert Buxbaum, Philosophical musings, Friday afternoon, June 30, 2017.

Solving the savings dilemma (how to have savings)

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the lack of savings in America, the social causes for it, and the damage it causes. I had some governmental suggestions, but suspect I didn’t emphasize that the main responsibility is personal: if you want savings, you’ve got to save.

Every rich person spends less than he earns. If you aspire to be rich, spend less on clothes than you can afford.

Every rich person spends less than he earns. If you aspire to be rich, spend less on clothes than you can afford.

If you want to have savings, it is up to you to spend less than you earn. If you don’t, you’ll never be rich, you’ll never have savings or net-economic worth, and you’ll always be strung-out over emergencies. Income and gifts won’t help if spending rises to match. At all incomes, the people who get richer are those who tailor spending to be less than earnings.

There is another personal honesty issue here, and a marriage issue too. If you spend more than you earn, someone will be cheated, and that person (your wife, husband, neighbor, friend) is likely to get mad. Earn $100 and spend $99.99, you can be honest and well liked. if you earn $1000 and spend $1000.01 and you will cheat someone you love sooner or later. Be an honest fellow and spend less. Clothes is a good place to start: say no to the fancy dress and the fancy wedding, and to fancy clothes in general. If you smoke, vaping can be a life and money saver. And try to avoid pot-smoking, at $400/oz that’s got to be a killer. And here are some water savers.

A good way to know if you are doing things right :Start a bank account, and check the balance and resolve to see it $10 higher at the end of the week than before. And that’s my two cents.

Robert Buxbaum, April 26, 2017.

Edward Elric’s Flamel

Edward Elric, the main character of a wonderful Japanese manga, Full Metal Alchemist, wears an odd symbol on his bright-red cloak. It’s called a Flamel, a snake on a cross with a crown and wings above. This is the symbol of a famous French author and alchemist of the 1300s, Nicholas Flamel who appears also, tangentially, in Harry Potter for having made a philosopher’s stone. But where does the symbol come from?

Edward Elrich with Flammel on back.

Edward Elric wears a snake-cross, “Flamel” on his back.


Current symbol of the AMA

A first thought of a source is that this is a version of the Asclepius, the symbol of the American Medical Association. Asclepius was an ancient Greek doctor who, in 85 BC distinguished between chronic and acute disease, developed theories on diet and exercise, and cured parasitic snakes under the skin by wrapping them around a stick. In mythology, he was chosen to be ship’s doctor on Jason’s voyage, and was so good at curing that Hades told Zeus he revived the dead. Zeus then killed him and set him among the stars as a constellation (the snake-handler, visible in the winter sky between Scorpius and Hercules). Though the story shows some similarities to Full Metal Alchemist, the Asclepius symbol don’t look like Elric’s Flamel. Asclepius had two daughters, Hygeia (hygiene), and Panacea (drugs?); the cup of Hygeia, below, is similar to the Asclepius but not to Ed’s Flamel.

The cup of Hygia, the symbol of pharmacy.

The cup of Hygeia, the symbol of pharmacy.

Staff of Hermes, symbol of the AMA till 2005

Staff of Hermes, symbol of the AMA till 2005

Another somewhat-similar symbol is the Caduceus, symbol of Hermes/ Mercury, left. It was the symbol of the AMA until 2005, and it has wings, but there are two snakes, not one, and no cross or crown. The AMA switched from the Caduceus when they realized that Hermes was not a god of healing, but of merchants, liars, and thieves. Two snakes fighting each other is how the Greeks viewed business. The wings are a symbol of speed. The AMA, it seems, made a Freudian mistake picking this symbol, but it seems unlikely that Flamel made the same mistake.

The true source of the Flamel, I think, is the Bible. In Numbers 21:8-9, the Jews complain about the manna in the desert, and God sends fiery serpents to bite them. Moses prays and is told to put a bronze snake on staff as a cure – look upon it and you are healed. While one might assume the staff was a plain stick like the Asclepius, it might have been a cross. This opinion appears on a German, coin below. The symbol lacks wings and a crown. Still, it’s close to the Flamel. To get the crown and wings, we can turn to the New Testament, John 3:16-17. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up … “that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” The quote seems to suggest that the snake itself was being lifted up, to holiness perhaps or to Devine service. In either case, this quote would explain the crown and wings as an allusion to Jesus.

German coin, 1500s showing Jesus, a snake and cross on one side. Christ on the other. Suggests two sides of the same.

German “taller” coin, 1500s showing Jesus on the cross on one side, a snake on the cross on the other. Suggests two sides of the same holiness.

I should mention that Flamel’s house is the oldest still standing in Paris, and that it contains a restaurant — one that would be nice to visit. Flamel died in 1418. His tomb has this symbol but was found to be empty. A couple of other odds and ends: the snake on the cross also appears in a horror story, the curse of the white worm, by Bram Stoker. In the story (and movie), it seems there are serpent-worshipers who believe it was the serpent who died for our sins. If you re-read the lines from John, and take the word “Him” to refer to the serpent, you’d get backing for this view. Edward might have adopted this, either as part of his mission, or just for the hell of it. The following exchange might back up Ed’s desire to be controversial.

Roy: I thought you didn’t believe in gods, Full metal.

Edward: I don’t. That’s the thing. I think they can tell, and it pisses them off.


As for the color red, the color may allude to blood and or fire. In this direction, the Salvation Army symbol includes a red “S” on a cross with a crown and the words “Blood and Fire.” In the manga, life-blood and fire appear to be the ingredients for making a philosopher’s stone. Alternately, the red color could relate to a nonvolatile mercury compound, red mercury or mercuric oxide, a compound that can be made by oxidation of volatile mercury. Flamel claimed the symbol related to “fixing the volatile.” Either that’s making oxide of mercury, or putting a stop in death.

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 9, 2017. I’ve also opined on the Holy Grail, and on Jack Kelly of Newsies, and on the humor of The Devine comedy. If you have not read “Full Metal Alchemist,” do.

Of grails: holy, monetary, and hip

The holy grail is pictured as either a cup or a plate that Jesus used at the Last supper. It either held the wine or the bread upon which he said: this wine is my blood and this bread (or cake*) is my body. The British have a legend, or made-up story, that this cup or plate made it to England somehow, and because of divine grace was revealed to king Arthur. The story is important because it underlies the idea of divine grace favoring the English crown  — that God favors England, and English royalty over other nations and the common folk.

A George III coin, engrailed for decoration and to keep people from carving off silver.

A George III coin, engrailed for decoration and to keep people from carving off silver.

What makes this item holy is that, by oral tradition, but not the gospels, Jesus’s blood was saved into the same plate or cup that he’d used at the last supper, but what about this plate or cup makes it a grail.

As it turns out, there are many unholy grails on runs into. The edges of many US coins are engrailed. That is, they are decorated with cut lines at the edges. They are there for decoration, and to make it unlikely that someone would cut off a piece. I suppose these coins are monetary grails, though I’ve never seen them described literally that way. They are engrailed, and one can presume that the holy cup or plate was engrailed the same way. Perhaps as decoration like on the coins, or perhaps for some aspect of use.

The grille on the front of a Ford is not only for decoration; it allows air to flow through. Some plates, and most broilers have grilles like this to that allow crumbs or gravy to drop through.

The front grille (or grill) on a Ford. It allows air to flow through. Broilers and some plates have through-slots like this; did The Grail?

The front end of most cars include a grille, or grill, an area cut all the way through to allow air to flow to the engine. Some plates and most barbecues are made this way to allow crumbs or blood from the barbecue to flow through. If this is flow through grill were the holy grail, it might have held Jesus’s bread, but not his wine or his blood.

And finally we come to an entirely modern type of grail, or grill, the one on the mouth of some rappers. The point is not entirely decorative, but to make one think more highly of the rapper. Clearly, a person with teeth like this, is a person to be respected. Clearly successful, the idea is make you think of the fellow as chosen by God to be a leader. There is a certain magic in wearing a grille.

Wholly Grilled, not the holly grail.

Wholly Grilled, but not the holly grail.

Robert Buxbaum, July 8, 2016. One of my Grad School chums, Al Rossi, tells me that, in the original Greek version of the gospels, Jesus says ‘this cake is my body.’  The normal version, ‘this bread’ comes from the Latin translation of St. Jerome. He also tells me there is no comment about this being Passover. As for how Jesus could celebrate passover with bread or cake and not matzoh, he claims it’s an example of having one’s cake and eating it too, as it were.

Abraham ROFLed; Sarah LOLed.

Something is lost, and something else gained when the Bible is translated into modern terms. Some grandeur is lost, some weight, but what is gained is a sense of intimacy, a personal relationship to the events and people.

Consider, for example, Abraham’s reaction when God reveals that he will have a son (Gen. 17:17). The King James translation is “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” There’s grandeur, but the event is distant from me.

Similarly, The Living Torah, “Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. ‘How could I become a father at the age of 100?’ he thought. ‘And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?'”

I don’t find this translation relatable either. To me, it would be better to say that Abraham did the first ROTFL (Roll on the floor laughing): “Abraham ROFLed, how grand to have a son at 100 years…” It brings up a pleasant image: of Abraham as a man of red face and good humor, a hearty companion, and a good host. Someone you’d want to visit, not a stick-in-the-mud who you visit because he owns the last hotel on the road to Sodom.

Not totally the way I see it: Sarah looks stunned, but at least this captures a jolly Abraham.

Not totally the way I see it: Sarah looks stunned, but at least this captures a jolly Abraham.

And the same with Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Her home is full of dusty tourist guests, and she feeds them steak. Do you see a silent martyr, or a jolly sort who genuinely likes guests. This is important because we are to learn from these stories, Too often the doctors of the religion seem to want martyrs, but my read of Genesis is that sh’s jolly.. Sarah listens to the tales of her guests, and when one says she will have a child at 90, she LOLs (laughs out loud, Gen. 18:12) “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘I’m old and my husband is too, will I have fun!” If God wants something weird Sarah is up for it. To her, it sounds like fun. And after that, “Will I nurse a child?!.”

I note that these are the paradigms of humanity, individuals that God loved, and spoke to at length. So lets do the same, be open to the positive, weird future, wherever God takes us. Let’s behave as God himself does. For, as we find Psalms (2:4), “He, who sits in the heavens, laughs; He mocks those who plan against HIm.” Now, ask the doctors of your religion, why are you so serious, when “He, who sits in the heavens, laughs”

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 12, 2016. This is my third essay on religion, all of them, I guess on the lighter side. In the first, I note that science and religion are opposites, In the follow-up, that secular philosophy and religion are uncomfortable competitors, and now that God likes the jolly (you probably prefer the jolly, too.)

Sept. 11, 1683, Islam attacks Vienna.

In the US, September 11 is mostly known for the attacks on the World Trade Center, 2001. But world wide, I think, it’s mostly known for the Battle of Vienna, 1683. Based on his interpretation the religious command to take over the corrupt western world, the Dar al-Harab, for the world of Islāmic peace, the Dar al-Islam, Caliph Mohamed IV, broke the Treaty of Vasvár in 1682, and sent his army to attack Vienna, something Suleiman the Magnificent had tried in 1526. They besieged the city and attacked unsuccessfully on September 11, 1683, a day that would live in infamy.

The forces of Mohamet IV surround Vienna, September 11, 1683.

The forces of the Caliph surround Vienna, the city of good wine, September, 1683.

Mohamed IV’s army was 150,000 strong, led by Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa Pasha. The army spent a year getting to the city while they conquered, or subdued Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary. During that year, Emperor Leopold I and Charles V, Duke of Lorraine left Vienna nearly defenseless, and scoured Europe for allies. Vienna was left defended by just 24,000 under command of Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg. By the time Kara Mustafa arrived Leopold had gotten a pledge of financial support from the pope, and signed a mutual defense treaty with the Polish-Lithuanian League, and with Saxony, Baden, Bavaria, Swabia and Franconia, a good years’ work (Louis XIII of France said no).

Kara Mustafa reached Vienna on July 14 1683, but did not attack. Instead he laid siege to the city, and to nearby Perchtoldsdorf (Petersdorf). Perchtoldsdorf surrendered, but Vienna did not. Kara Mustafa then massacred the entire Christian population, perhaps as many as 30,000 people in the city square, and took their booty. This move may have pleased the Caliph, but did nothing to encourage the Viennese to surrender. Vienna held out until September, 1683 when the liberating armies of Leopold, Charles V, and John III Sobieski (Poland) arrived. Kara Mustafa attacked on September 11, but it was too late. In the counter attack, the Islamic army was defeated and put to flight. Kara Mustafa was put to death by the caliph for his failure.

Cavalry fighting at the Battle of Vienna, 1683

The Polish cavalry at the Battle of Vienna, 1683

The loss at Vienna was the beginning of a long retreat for Islam. Over the next century, Hapsburg rulers captured Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary; Russia conquered the Ukraine. The victorious Viennese built churches, established a feast day (Day of the Holy Name), and created crescent-shaped rolls, breads in the shape of the Moslem crescent symbol (or so the legend goes).

My reading suggests that, to this day, believing Moslems find the churches, breads, and festival offensive at some level. My guess, too, is that Osama bin Laden picked September 11, 2001 as his response to the offense. As a teen, Osama traveled in Europe, and his bookshelf included, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Paul Kennedy)”, and similar titles suggesting he would have known about the date and its significance. It seems likely (to me), that the date of the US embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya, September 11 2012 was similarly planned to match the earlier Sept 11’s, and not, as Ms Clinton claims, a response to a Jewish-made, Hollywood film.

It is clear that not every Islāmic thinker understands the obligation to battle our Dar al Harab to be one of armies, swords, and bombs. Even the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has explained that the popular slogan, “Death to America,” does not mean “death to the American people,” but “death to U.S. policies and arrogance,” That is, a war of ideas. He claims this struggle is “backed by reason and wisdom,” i.e. by the Koran, and he should know.

"Muslims against Crusaders" chanting during the two minutes of Remembrance Day (Armistice Day) silence, 2010.

“Muslims against Crusaders” chanting during the two minutes of Remembrance Day (Armistice Day) silence, 2010, “Our soldiers are in paradise, yours burn in Hell.”

However it is fought, the aim of the war is fought for our benefit: to save us from eternal Hell, and make our present world better, a part of the Dar al Islam, the Moslem world of religious peace. Even at our best, our infidel Dar al-Harab is considered evil because we go about independently competing in a world of chaotic commerce. Each infidel (as they see it) trying to wrest wealth from his fellow in an economic struggle that can only be ended by Caliphate-controlled charity. That the Dar al-Islam has been in turmoil for the last 1000 years is considered a slight embarrassment. To me, it seems more like Aesop’s fable of the toad physician who could not heal himself.

I note that many religions have the same jaundiced view of commerce, and have fought over it. What I find somewhat humorous (ha ha) is that Islam = Sholom = peace, and that there is a pattern of war being used to enforce peace on the unwilling.

If you find errors in my thinking, please tell me; I’m an engineer, not a historian or a theologian (Islāmic or otherwise). What little I know of Islam comes from my meagre translation above, from some history, and from public comments, e.g. by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Just so you know my biases, my sense is that a world of economic chaos is a better, more satisfying world, than any world of statist religious rule. I’d say that G-d likes entropy in all its forms, and that chaos is a gift. Let us thank God for Wine (Wiine = Wein = Vienna).

Robert E. Buxbaum, Friday, November 13, 2015.

For All Fools Day, April 1, 2015

On this April Fools day I’m reminded of:

Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, of Missouri. Before being elected to the US senate, he had been the lawyer for another Democrat, Andrew Jackson (before he was president). Like most prominent Americans of their day both men liked to settle arguments through by use of gunnery at close range. After Andrew Jackson participated in a duel with Benton’s brother, Benton himself challenged Jackson to a duel (I try to avoid this with my lawyers).

Seantor Thomas Hart Benton

Senator Thomas Hart Benton; his feud with A. Jackson, ended by common hatred of the Federal Reserve Bank

When asked about it later, Benton said, “Yes, sir, I knew him, sir; General Jackson was a very great man, sir. I shot him, sir. Afterward he was of great use to me, sir, in my battle with the United States Bank.” Ain’t that America. You can be shooting enemies one day, best of buddies the next.

In world politics and life this doesn’t happen as regularly as perhaps it should, but it happens. A few years after WWII we were allies with Germany and Italy, but enemies with the USSR. After WWI we were allies with Japan, until we weren’t; now we are again. Some day ISIS and Iran will be friends (won’t Mr A Bomb be sad).

I should also mention, and recommend the most amusing work of philosophy you are ever likely to encounter: St Erasmus of Rotterdam’s panegyric, “In Praise of Folly”. The thesis, if I may summarize: that most people like a fool and some folly; so does God. That most people don’t like long, boring lectures; neither does God. Etc. Good folly is likely to hurt you in a way you don’t mind (e.g. music, drinking, chasing women, reading long boring books if you like them); bad folly hurts others, e.g. when priest lives royally off of charity.

You might imagine that Erasmus would be executed for this but it seems he was not. It seems to me that Erasmus did something even more remarkable and made himself into a saint by claiming that God would not mind if people prayed to him for all good things. Apparently they started to, and got answered. A cheerful answer from a world of fools.

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 1, 2015.

Of Scrooge and rising wheat production

The Christmas Carol tells a tale that, for all the magic and fantasy, presents as true an economic picture of a man and his times as any in real-life history. Scrooge is a miserable character at the beginning of the tale, he lives alone in a dark house, without a wife or children, disliked by those around him. Scrooge has an office with a single employee (Bob Cratchit) in a tank-like office heated by a single lump of coal. He doesn’t associate much with friends or family, and one senses that he has few customers. He is poor by any life measure, and is likely poor relative to other bankers. At the end, through giving, he finds he enjoys life, is liked more, and (one has the sense) he may even get more business, and more money.

Scrooge (as best I can read him) believes in Malthus’s economic error of zero-sum wealth: That there is a limited amount of food, clothing, jobs, etc. and therefore Scrooge uses only the minimum, employs only the minimum, and spends only the minimum. Having more people would only mean more mouths to feed. As Scrooge says, “I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [the workhouses]. They cost enough, and … If they [the poor] would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge, the poor rich man.

Scrooge, the poor rich man with a tiny carbon footprint.

The teaching of the spirits is the opposite, and neither that of the Democrats or Republicans. Neither that a big government is needed to redistribute the wealth, nor that the free market will do everything. But, as I read it, the spirits bring a spiritual message of personal charity and happiness. That one enriches ones-self when one give of and by ones-self — just from the desire to be good and do good. The spirit of Christmas Present assures Scrooge that no famine will result from the excess population, but tells him of his 1800 brothers and shows him the unending cornucopia of food in the marketplace: spanish onions, oranges, fat chestnuts, grapes, and squab. Christmas future then shows him his funeral, and Tim’s: the dismal end of all men, rich and not:  “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live.” And Scrooge reforms, learns: gives a smile and a laugh, and employs a young runner to get Cratchit a fat goose. He visits his nephew Fred, a cheerful businessman for dinner, and laughs while watching Tom Topper court Fred’s plump sister-in-law.

The spirits do not redistribute Scrooge’s wealth for him, and certainly don’t present a formula for how much to give whom. Instead they present a picture of the value of joy and societal fellowship (as I read it). The spirits help Scrooge out of his mental rut so he’s sees worthy endeavors everywhere. Both hoarding and redistribution are Malthusian-Scroogian messages, as I read them. Both are based on the idea that there is only so much that the world can provide.

World wheet production

World wheat production tripled from 1960 to 2012 (, but acreage remained constant. More and more wheat from the same number of acres.

The history of food production suggests the spirits are right. The population is now three times what it was in Dickens’s day and mass starvation is not here. Instead we live among an “apoplectic opulence” of food. In a sense these are the product of new fertilizers, new tractors, and GMOs (Genetically modified organisms), but I would say it’s more the influence of better people. Plus, perhaps some extra CO2 in the air. Britons now complain about being too fat — and blame free markets for making them so. Over the last 50 years, wheat production has tripled, while the world population doubled, and the production of delicacies, like meat has expanded even faster. Unexpectedly, one sees that the opulence does not come from bringing new fields on-line — a process that would have to stop — but instead from increased production by the same tilled acres.

The opulence is not uniformly distributed, I should note. Countries that believe in Malthus and resort to hoarding or redistribution have been rewarded to see their grim prophesies fulfilled, as was Scrooge. Under Stalin, The Soviet Union redistributed grain from the unworthy farmer to the worth factory worker. The result was famine and Stalin felt vindicated by it. Even after Stalin, production never really grew under Soviet oversight, but remained at 75 Mtons/year from 1960 until the soviet collapse in 1990. Tellingly, nearly half of Soviet production was from the 3% of land under private cultivation. An unintended benefit: it appears the lack of Soviet grain was a major motivation for détente.  England had famine problems too when they enacted Malthusian “corn acts” and when they prevented worker migration Irish ownership during the potato famine. They saw starvation again under Attlee’s managed redistribution. In the US, it’s possible that behaviors like FDR scattering the bonus army may have helped prolong the depression. My sense is that the modern-day Scrooges are those against immigration “the foreigners will take our jobs,” and those who oppose paying folks on time, or nuclear and coal for fear that we will warm the planet. Their vision of America-yet-to-be matches Scrooge’s: a one-man work-force in a tank office heated by a single piece of coal.

Now I must admit that I have no simple formula for the correct charity standard. How does a nation provide enough, but not so much that it removes motivation– and the joy of success. Perhaps all I can say is that there is a best path between hoarding and false generosity. Those pushing the extremes are not helping, but creating a Dickensian world of sadness and gloom. Rejoice with me then, and with the reformed Scrooge. God bless us all, each and every one.

Robert Buxbaum, January 7, 2015. Some ideas here from Jerry Bowyer in last year’s Forbes.

What is learning?

It is common to spend the most of one’s youth in school — presumably learning something. The financial cost for primary education is a few hundred thousand dollars, borne by the state, plus 13 years or so of the student’s life. College learning costs another $50,000 to $200,000, borne by the student, plus another 4-6 years of life. The indication that you’ve learned something appears, in many majors by the ability to get a job that pays more than the school financial cost. But there is also a sense that you’ve learned something, and this is perhaps the only reward for students of film, religion, or archeology. My question is based mostly on this part: what is this learning. Is it the same as knowledge, a set of facts, or satisfaction — perhaps you could be as satisfied by ignorance or drugs. How do you evaluate the spiritual payback from 4-6 years of college? I don’t have all the answers, but ask to exercise my ignorance.

It would seem to me that an important standard of learning is that it should develop the mind and not corrupt it. But how do you recognize the difference? it seems to me one should leave with a set of mental skills should be new to you, recognizable to a normal outsider, and somewhat useful, as in the poem “Botany” even if you don’t use it. I’m not sure if the skills have to be true, by the way, or how useful they have to be. Perhaps developing a new confusion is better than having false notions — knowing that you doubt something.

sometimes education is the removal of false notions.

Sometimes learning can be the development of doubt.

If you’ve been educated in music, it seems to me you should be able to make sounds that appear pleasant to a normal listener; if you’ve been educated in mechanics, you should be able to make machines that work, and if you’ve been educated to think… perhaps then you should be able to walk into a discussion about something you once thought was true, and show that it is really false to an extent that others would accept it (and act upon it?). That is, my suspicion is that learning should involve an identifiable change –not only internal satisfaction, and I also suspect learning the new must involve unlearning the old.

Liberal Education may not be useful, or elevating

Education that isn’t useful isn’t particularly elevating

And that leads us to facts and methods: knowledge. Facts are good, they are the fuel and  substance of learning. Without facts there is nothing for the learning to attach to. But facts are often wrong — the ignorance of others, and even when right, they can be  deceptive. If you’ve learned the moon is made of rock, or out of green cheese, it’s pretty much the same unless there is a reason to think the fact you’ve learned is true, and unless you’ve a good understanding of what the fact ‘means.’ I can imagine a rock that is organic (a gall stone) and less solid than some (old) green cheese. The word rock or cheese must mean something to you to be a fact. Similarly in all subjects; if you learn that Shakespeare is a better writer than Poe, you should have a reason to believe it, and a clear understanding of the word ‘better’ in this context.

Turning to the knowledge of methods. It seems to me that learning a new method of thought, action, or argument is a necessary component of learning– one might even call it virtue, but this too seems to have limitations if it is not directed to use. A person is half-educated if he leaves school knowing how to do geometric proofs, but never doing any, or knowing how to run a great business, but never running one. A science graduate should at least be able to use the techniques learned to demonstrate that the world is made of atoms, and that the sun does not circle the earth and perhaps more. An argument can be made for traditional education areas of logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and dialectic. But these seem useless unless they are applied to a worthy end. One should do more with the new methods than to win drawing-room arguments.

There should be some satisfaction to accomplishments, but I'm not sure how it's learned.

Learning should provide satisfaction –in particular religious learning — but it’s nicer if it goes with doing good for someone (not only the poor) and the ability to earn an honest income. 

There should be a moral component of learning too, but here I feel less certain in describing it, or describing how it should be taught. Theodore Roosevelt said that “An uneducated man can steal from a rail car, “but an educated one can steal the whole railroad.” but perhaps stealing the railroad isn’t such a bad thing if it’s done legally. And as I don’t quite know when the honest stock deal is moral, I’m even more in the dark as to how to teach one to recognize the moral from the immoral in these situations. Two thoughts here: a student deserves some satisfaction from his or her learning and (from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) to be moral, the student has to earn an honest income. One who can not earn a living is bound to steal from someone sooner or later.

A final sign of learning, and perhaps it’s crown, is creativity, the ability to come to new understandings and develop new things. To do this productively requires some knowledge of the past plus an indescribable view of the future. A spark? A divine madness? Schools do not seem to be able to teach that, but it can help or hinder by either encouraging it, or beating it down. If you did not possess this ability when you entered school, you are unlikely to leave with it, even if you just did drugs, but school can teach one to direct the spark productively.

I’ve noticed that our high schools focus little on the above areas, perhaps because they are hard to test. Rather classes aim to the exams, and the exams test (as best I can tell), memorization, aptitude, and exposure. A surprisingly large fraction of our students leave diagnosed as ADHD. Still, strangely, our graduates do better than the Europeans.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, December 29, 2014 (I taught in college). Here’s some advice I wrote for my 16 year old daughter in high school.