Friday, January 29, 2010

I Was So Much Older Then...

“It is never too late to have a happy childhood.”
~ Tom Robbins

In the past two weeks I’ve read two autobiographies. Both are exceptionally well written and absorbing; I recommend them. The first is Wait Till Next Year by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The second is The Center of the Universe by former advertising executive Nancy Bachrach. Although the two books are about American women growing up in the Northeastern U.S. at approximately the same time, the experiences they describe could not be more different.

Goodwin’s Irish Catholic father, Michael Francis Aloysius Kearns, was a bank examiner. As he began rising through the ranks in his career, he moved his wife and three daughters from Brooklyn to Rockville Center, Long Island. It was the kind of neighborhood where houses were close together and Catholics, Protestants and Jews were able to blend in a true community. (Racial integration was a fait accomplis in local schools, but still a few years away in the neighborhood.) Children played with one another and parents socialized with their neighbors. Whenever young Doris’s mother, who suffered from a severe heart condition, was hospitalized, neighborhood moms stepped in and formed a localized social safety net. The only real division came during baseball season, when the families divided themselves into three camps: supporters of the Yankees, the Giants and the Kearns family’s great passion, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Although she tells her story with considerable wit, Nancy Bachrach’s childhood in Providence, Rhode Island was anything but carefree and supportive. Her father was a tinkerer and inventor of things that were going to make the family rich…but somehow just added to their debts. He was also a self-styled Mr. Fix-it whose jury-rigging filled the Bachrach home with booby traps and ultimately led to disaster. Mr. Fix-it’s illusions extended to the effect his wife was having on their three children. When Nancy Bachrach was growing up, her mother was a towering, terrifying woman who combined brilliance and great charm with severe mental illness — so severe, she required periodic treatments with a “rain hat,” which was the family’s shorthand for electro-convulsive therapy. The maternal family tree seems to have been crowded with people with a slippery grip on reality, as well as with gangsters, gamblers and grifters. Nurturers were few and far between.

Reading two such different stories in close succession, I found myself repeatedly thinking about the unpredictability of life. When little Doris Kearns was growing up on Long Island, my own family lived less than 20 miles away. Yet our communities were very different. Where I lived, the houses were farther apart and adult neighbors rarely spoke to one another. I wonder — has anyone ever done a study on the effect of yard size on community cohesion? Nancy Bachrach and I worked in the same company for quite a few years and collaborated on projects several times. Let's just say this book explains a lot.

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
~ Deepak Chopra

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oh, Nevermind: Mind Over Body

“See, the human mind is kind of like...a piñata. When it breaks open, there's a lot of surprises inside. Once you get the piñata perspective, you see that losing your mind can be a peak experience.”
~ Jane Wagner

When I signed up for a lecture titled “Health: The Surprising New Science on the Power of Mind Over Body” by Catherine Sanderson, I was hoping the emphasis would be on real science, not New Age theories, and I wasn’t disappointed. Sanderson is an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at Amherst College. She lives at the intersection of social psychology/personality and the body.

Professor Sanderson’s first topic was food — specifically, the way the appearance of food influences our appetites. One experiment involved an “endless soup bowl.” The bowl automatically refilled itself as people ate…and ate…and ate without realizing they were consuming more than one bowl. In another experiment, a group of hungry students walked into a classroom that smelled like chocolate brownies, but when they saw that the brownies were shaped to resemble dog food, they lost their appetites. Diet tip!

Speaking of dieting, considerable research has been done among the group of lab rats known as college students. Professor Sanderson described a phenomenon known as “tray gazing” — the way female students in Amherst's college cafeteria scope out what’s on other people’s trays. A large percentage of young women would have you believe they live on salads. The truth is, the public salad is often followed by cookie-gorging back in the dorm room. Another, more disturbing study found that young women believe the ideal weight for a 5’7” woman is 100 lbs. — a height-weight combo that meets the clinical criteria for anorexia.

And then there's love, sex and attraction. Did you know that men who watch a lot of porn find real women less attractive? Well now you do. Another interesting finding: most of us think of ourselves as more attractive than we actually are; only depressed people see themselves realistically. As Professor Sanderson put it, “Psychologically healthy people are delusional.”

Professor Sanderson is an extremely engaging speaker with a good sense of humor. She spent several hilarious minutes on the way increasing your heartbeat can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences — including marriage. That topic is well worth its own blog post and will get one, soon.

For now, let me leave you with Professor Sanderson's list of six things we can all do to improve ourselves.
  • Eat mindfully. Pay attention to portion size. Also pay attention to whether you’re actually hungry — we are all prey to the seduction of yummy-looking or -smelling food. 
  • Beware of false food norms. Most of us eat more than we claim.
  • Buy the generic brand — but put it in a brand-name bottle. You’ll feel better.
  • Get a dog. People with dogs live longer. (Sorry, cats just don’t have that effect…possibly because you don’t have to go out and walk them.)
  • Extend your self-delusion to your loved ones: see them through rose-colored glasses.
  • If you want to improve your sex life, get your heart racing.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.”
~ John Milton

Monday, January 25, 2010

Teachers and Their Audiences

Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”
~ Chinese Proverb

Every few months an outfit called One Day University brings some of the country’s top college professors to midtown Manhattan to impart a little knowledge. The audience is composed entirely of adults and includes a high percentage of people of retirement age. As for the teachers, most are breathtakingly gifted, but one or two usually have a bad day.

At last Saturday’s session, three of the five classes were brilliant, inspiring and a whole lot of fun. I'll be writing about those in the next few days. For now, I want to focus on the two that went less well and what would have made them better.

Dr. David Helfand is the chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University and co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory. The title of his talk was “Is There Intelligent Life in the Universe?” — a question that suggested not a definitive yes or no answer, but a partly scientific, partly philosophical discussion enlivened by, who knows, Hubble telescope photos. By the time Dr. Helfand took the stage, the room was packed and primed.

Dr. Helfand — tall, bearded and rather jolly — has an engaging, informal manner that undoubtedly makes him a popular figure in the Columbia University pantheon. He is an astrophysicist who would be fun to have a drink with. And yet…and yet...these gifts could not save him from a fundamental flaw in the design of his lecture.

A few minutes into his presentation Dr. Helfand introduced a lengthy mathematical formula, explaining that this string of terms was the recipe for a scientific guesstimate of the number of planets that might contain sentient, communicating life forms. Fair enough; he's a physicist and formulas are his grammar. The problem was, Dr. Helfand framed his entire presentation around a step-by-step demonstration of the formula. No matter how amusingly a formula is presented, it is still math. Very quickly, the needle on the incomprehension meter moved to the right, eyes began glazing over and people began to tune out. Ten or 15 minutes into the presentation, the first few audience members stood up and left. About halfway through, the man in the row behind me began snoring loudly. Most people stayed through the end, but it was tough going. I happen to be a fan of astrophysical concepts — but not of mathematical computation — and felt myself leaning into the presentation as if into a strong wind.

The problem with Dr. Helfand's lecture is obvious: people were expecting Carl Sagan and instead got a math lesson. To reach a general audience, Dr. Helfand needs to start over. Astrophysics isn't simply to about numbers. It's also about the awe-inspiring scale, drama and beauty of the universe. Tell us about that, Dr. Helfand, and tell it in visual — not mathematical — language.

“More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given.”
~ Bertrand Russell

Sherwin Nuland is Yale faculty member, an award-winning author and a retired surgeon. As is abundantly clear in this TED talk in which he recounts his epic battle with depression, he can be a tremendously compelling speaker. But on Saturday, when Dr. Nuland's subject was Leonardo DaVinci, he was off his game. Dr. Nuland idolizes DaVinci and his presentation came most alive when discussing DaVinci’s obsession with anatomy, an area Dr. Nuland clearly knows quite a bit about. Problems surfaced when he ventured into his theories about the Mona Lisa’s smile (he believes she was pregnant) and Leonardo’s sexuality (he thinks he was virtually celibate). While I have no doubt that Dr. Nuland has good evidence for his theories, he hasn't found an engaging way to discuss them.

Most puzzling, Dr. Nuland spent several minutes discussing the shocked looks on the faces of the people in DaVinci’s The Last Supper — without ever showing the painting.

If I were rewriting this lecture for Dr. Nuland, this is what I would recommend. Focus on the area where Dr. Nuland's life dovetails with DaVinci's: human anatomy. Bring it alive with storytelling. And— since we're talking about Leonardo —show a few more pictures!

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
~ John Steinbeck

Friday, January 22, 2010

Links, Methinks

"Wealth is the ability to fully experience life."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Spending time on the Internet is like stumbling around in Charles Foster Kane's basement. It is a world overstuffed with the riches of other people's knowledge, talents and obsessions. Today, I'm sharing a few of the places I've been and people I've learned from lately.

Do you ever worry about being flimflammed? Those e-mails from Nigerians in need of a small favor for which you will be richly rewarded are obviously bogus, but what about a small time Bernie Madoff? Are you ready for him? This article from Psyblog, "The 7 Psychological Principles of Scams," outlines the concepts on which most everyday frauds are based.

From the New York Public Library, we have an overflowing file drawer of photos showing the changing New York City landscape in the years 1935 through 1938 — all by master photographer Berenice Abbott. Above, majestic Penn Station, which was torn down in the 1960s and replaced with an eyesore.

From the Symphony of Science we have four magical videos in which Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and other scientists — set to music — help us understand our world.

Speaking of science and music, here are two fascinating musings on music and the brain.   

  • In "Music Sounds Like Moving People," cognitive science resesearcher Mark Changizi of Rensselaer Polytechnic helps us understand how loudness, pitch, tempo and rhythm are properties not only of music but of how we hear and interpret the world around us; in the process, he provides a compelling argument for leaving the headphones at home when jogging. 

  • On his blog The Frontal Cortex, neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer interprets a new study on music's relationship with our brains. His conclusions: first, "music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms" by messing around with our learned expectations; and second, we are most moved by music that surprises us by doing the unexpected.

Vintage Posters is a blog devoted to — guess what? — vintage posters; they scream to be seen and appreciated. The blog is written in French, but you don't need language skills to appreciate visuals like this one.

Finally, I'm in the mood for some Yeats. How about you? Here, in "A Prayer for My Daughter," the poet agonizes over what type of woman his young daughter will become. The poem was written in 1919, the year his daughter Anne — who grew up to be a painter and stage designer —was born.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Science Needs Superstars

"What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what's going on."
~ Jacques Cousteau

These are benighted times. In our culture, fame often seems more important than accomplishment. In the news, inflammatory opinions and imagined scenarios are treated with the same seriousness as facts. In the classroom, ignorant school boards try to substitute fables for science.

I say it's time to fight fire with fire. Science needs is its own superstar, and I nominate Edward O. Wilson for the job. An evolutionary biologist, researcher, theorist and author, he is the winner of two Pulitzer prizes for nonfiction, a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. His day job is Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

At a time when Kim Kardashian, Perez Hilton and Octomom are household names, the fact that Dr. Wilson's fame is generally limited to fellow scientists and random civilians (like yours truly) who admire his work is wrong in more ways than I can enumerate. However, right now his fame has the potential to expand, at least among people who think. He could, as the saying goes, break big. But it will take some work.

Dr. Wilson is already doing his part. For an 81 year old who has been blind in one eye and hard of hearing since childhood, he really gets around, and he is exceptionally visible right now. He has a wonderful article about biodiversity in National Geographic and a short story — yes, fiction — in the New Yorker. His subject is the creatures he has studied throughout his career: ants.

Okay, so maybe an elderly scientist who studies ants isn't as easy a sell as Johnny Depp in a pirate outfit, but we need to try. When ignorance is praised and intellect is vilified, drastic measures are called for.

Please take a little time to learn about E. O. Wilson and his work, and then start building some buzz. Here are some places to start.
  • Dr. Wilson's TED talk about saving life on Earth is thought-provoking way to invest 22 minutes; your brain will thank you for it.
  • At the 2009 World Science Festival in New York City, Dr. Wilson participated in a fascinating discussion titled "What It Means to be Human." Led by moderator Alan Alda, the panelists examined the roots of human cooperation from biological, anthropological and psychological perspectives. I was fortunate enough to see this discussion in person, and now everyone can see it, in four parts, on World Science Festival Web site.
Get this man a fan club!
    "I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in  his laboratory is not only a technician; he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale."
    ~ Marie Curie

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Writing: Why Bother?

    "There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth publishing, to find honest men to publish it, and to find sensible men to read it."
    ~ Charles Caleb Colton
    Divinipotent Daily would like to say "thank you" to Katherine Rosman for her January 15 Wall Street Journal article, "The Death of the Slush Pile." The article confirms what most writers have strongly suspected for the past few years: While it has always been somewhat pointless to become a writer, today it is worse. It is hopeless.

    Some perspective: A long time ago, in the heart of the recession of 1973-75, the publisher of the rock & roll magazine I was editing ran out of money. In those days, to qualify for unemployment you had to appear at your local unemployment office every two weeks to prove you had been searching for work. The process began with an in-person interview where a stern-faced bureaucrat asked about your skills and tried to match you with openings. When my turn came, I explained that I was a writer and editor; the interviewer stared at me for a moment and then said, "You don't need to come back." In other words, there were no jobs and there was no point in going through the job-hunting motions.

    "I've been willing to go for years without publishing. That's been my career."
    ~ Marguerite Young

    In 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 44,170 Americans were working as writers and authors. Approximately the same number were laboring as technical writers. And 110,010 underpaid souls were editing the work.

    Given the combined effects of the recession and the ongoing decimation of newspaper and magazine publishing, many of those employed in 2008 are without work in 2010.

    When writers and editors lose their jobs, there is a tendency to say, "I'll just freelance" until the next job comes along. That's music to the ears of Demand Studios, Suite 101 and other digital content providers. These companies get rich supplying articles by the bucketful to hungry Internet publishers while paying their writers pennies per word. It's a pernicious system that devalues the worth of all writers and floods the marketplace with inadequately researched, hastily written, poorly crafted work. 

    "Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."
    ~ Don Marquis

    Katherine Rosman's Wall Street Journal article focuses on a more traditional aspect of publishing: slush piles — the fabled heaps of manuscripts that arrive unbidden from unknown writers. Years ago, publishers and agents hired interns to skim through the piles to find a random gem. Today, virtually no major publishing houses even accept unsolicited manuscripts. Submissions must come through a known agent, and agents, too, are overwhelmed. As Ms. Rosman recounts, Stephenie Meyer, best-selling author of the Twilight series, was only discovered because an intern didn't understand the policies of Writers House, the agency that now represents her.

    "Writers are the lunatic fringe of publishing."
    ~ Judith Rossner
    Here is my advice for anyone who is thinking about becoming a professional writer. If you have a family to support, this is not the career for you. If you believe you'll make it because you're a very good writer, reconsider; bookstores are filled with very good writers — most of them working as salespeople. If you're looking for fame and fortune, you are extremely likely to be disappointed; even if you get published, you will almost certainly remain unknown.

    There is only one good reason to become a writer, and that is because you simply can't help yourself. If you're doing it for love, then throw yourself into it heart and soul. Otherwise, get yourself a practical job in accounting or pharmaceutical sales — something with a steady income and a real future.

    The paintings above, The Poor Poet and The Bookworm, are by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), a German painter and poet.

    Friday, January 15, 2010

    It's International Fetish Day

    Attention rubber freaks, shoe lovers and BDSM enthusiasts: It's International Fetish Day.

    Under the headline "It's not just about whips and leather," an article by Symon Hill in the UK paper the Guardian goes on to focus narrowly, one might say exclusively, on sexual fetishes...primarily those involving whips and leather. Hello, Mr. Hill, is there something you'd like to tell us?

    While sexual fetishes get most of the attention (after all, they're sexy), fetishism isn't just about sex. Some of us have a fetish about grammar. And in older, more traditional cultures, fetishism is about spirituality — specifically about attributing magical or spiritual powers to objects, particularly those associated with animistic or shamanistic religious practices.

    The Zuni tribe of the U.S. southwest is well known for its hand-carved animal fetishes, which have played an important role in Zuni culture for hundreds or even thousands of years. (These days the carvings are also a source of income for Zuni artisans.)

    On International Fetish day, Divinipotent Daily will leave the bondage and discipline to others and instead will focus on the Zuni's beautiful work. In order, the images below represent a bear, a buffalo, a mountain lion, a fox, a mountain sheep and a wolf.



    "After dark, all cats are leopards."
    ~ Zuni proverb

    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    Seeing Sound, Hearing Color

    “Everything starts from a dot.”
    ~ Wassily Kandinsky

    The older I get, the more I am determined to enjoy the cultural riches of New York City. And so it was that yesterday afternoon I dropped everything and spent two fascinating hours at the Guggenheim Museum soaking up the Wassily Kadinsky retrospective on its final day. As museum visitors walked up the Guggenheim's spiraling ramp, paintings traced the evolution of Kandinsky's work from its beginnings in Russia to his final paintings in Paris.

    As a young painter, Kandinsky searched for a visual vocabulary of colors and symbolic images that would parallel the notes and chords of music. The audio tour described Kandinsky's fascination with and affinity for the composer and music theorist Arnold Schoenberg. As I looked at paintings with titles like "Improvisation" and "Composition," I wondered if he experienced synesthesia — the criss-crossing of the senses that enables some people to hear colors or see or taste sound. Moments later the audio guide actually used the word synesthesia in speaking of Kandinsky's desire to merge the worlds of music, literature and art.

    Kandinsky began as a rigorously intellectual painter and author of books about colors and symbols. He incorporated various fascinations into his work — geometry, scientific instruments, cosmology and biology. The results were explosions of color and profusions of shapes that changed art and influenced generations of  artists. Later in life, with his visual vocabulary complete and integrated into his nature, he seemed to paint for the sheer joy of it. Below are a few random examples of his work. They in no way do justice to the canvases Kandinsky created. In many cases, the colors he worked with were stunningly intense. They need to be seen in person.


    "Colour is the key. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically."
    ~ Wassily Kandinsky

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    My First Will and Testament

    "When you look at yourself from a universal standpoint, something inside always reminds or informs you that there are bigger and better things to worry about."
     ~ Albert Einstein 

    Warning: Narcissistic and Nostalgic Content

    The other day my sister Terry handed me an old 5" x 7" manila envelope. I knew immediately what I'd find inside: some old report cards from elementary school and a copy of my will, written in a fit of pique when I was nine. I'd last seen that envelope in the early 1970s, about ten years before our mother died; it had been in her strongbox along with birth certificates, legal papers and memorabilia.

    A little history: Terry and I are the fifth and sixth of our parents' six daughters. We're close now, but we fought like rabid little badgers when we were kids. I wrote the will because, as I melodramatically announced on a note tucked inside an envelope that I had carefully made from looseleaf paper and tape, "I am running away from home. Don't expect me. I just can't stand Terry any longer."

    Message to parents of little people: perspective is not an attribute that comes naturally to children.

    The will itself, written in undulating waves with an Esterbrook fountain pen, is fairly impressive. I give myself points for thoroughness in assigning my meager possessions — toys, clothes, "jewels" and pets — to various relatives, friends and even my teacher. I particularly like the part where I wrote that my aunt and uncle could "switch for something else" if they didn't want the turtles I bequeathed to them. The word "Original" is written at the top of the page in no. 2 pencil. Where had I picked up that trick? This was years before the Xerox machine was invented. Oh yes, I had it all figured out...except where I would go, what I would do and how I would survive after running away from home.

    Predictably, my life as a runaway did not last long. It was November and, as daylight turned to dusk and the chill of autumn settled in, I skulked back home. No one greeted me tearfully or even scolded me. It was just another day. Histrionics were always frowned upon in our house, but would an acknowledgment have killed them? I wondered for a long time if my parents even knew I'd run away, but of course they did. They had saved my will.

    This is a photo taken around that time of Terry and me with our sister Barbara. You can see Terry struggling to restrain herself from strangling the little brat hamming it up in front of her. No wonder she couldn't stand me.

    "Adventure must start with running away from home."

    ~ William Bolitho 

    Monday, January 11, 2010

    Authors, Impostors and Other Pretenders

    “It is because we are all impostors that we endure each other.” 
    ~ Emile M. Cioran

    Last Saturday afternoon at Times Center in Manhattan, crime fiction authors Jim Grant (who writes as Lee Child) and Carol O'Connell talked about their work with New York Times book critic Janet Maslin. Grant's Jack Reacher is a drifter who follows his own, lethal moral code. O'Connell's Mallory is a drop-dead gorgeous New York City homicide detective and certified sociopath. At one point Maslin asked the two authors to what extent the characters who made them famous are autobiographical.

    Grant is a good-looking, articulate man who seems completely at ease in his own skin. He grew up fighting his way to school on the rough streets of Birmingham, England, and he freely admitted that he and his lone killer character are psychic twins, with Reacher acting out Child's own revenge fantasies.  

    Carol O'Connell is a diminutive, attractive but awkward contrarian who seems more like a rebellious high school girl than the baby boomer she is. She insisted Mallory was nothing like her, but to this observer it seemed more likely that Mallory was her avenging angel, slapping down bullies and delivering fierce payback.

    “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
    ~ François de la Rochefoucauld

    Actors and novelists inhabit other people for a living, but almost all of us are imposters in particular situations. My first working decade was spent in small, informal music business companies; the posturing there was a lot like high school — we all wanted to seem cool. Later, when I took an editing job at a big ad agency, I encountered my first corporate pod people. The idea that millions of normal people got up every morning, put on their corporate work clothes, corporate work personae and corporate work vocabularies and basically pretended to be someone else all day was new to me. After reading a few books about history of corporations, I learned that the corporate code of conduct was based on the military and first took hold in a major way after World War I, as rural populations and waves of immigrants moved to major cities in search of work. So corporate pod-world was created as a neutral ground where people from different backgrounds could interact and perform tasks under clear hierarchical control. Unfortunately, that system, which worked well enough ninety years ago, is solving the wrong problems in 2010.
    “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”
    ~ Charles M. de Talleyrand

    Psychologists are familiar with a condition known as the Impostor Syndrome. According to the CalTech Web site, symptoms include feeling like a fraud, attributing your accomplishments to sheer luck, diminishing the value of your successes and living in dread of being found out. Perhaps ironically (or perhaps predictably) the people most likely to suffer from the Impostor Syndrome are high achievers. But here's a fascinating twist: according to this New York Times article, a study by Wake Forest University found that some of those who speak of themselves disparagingly don't actually mean it — they are "phony phonies."

    Want to know if you're suffering from the Impostor Syndrome? Take this handy quiz on the Impostor Syndrome Web site.

    Thinking about impostors and Impostor Syndrome makes me want to create my own tough-talking stand-in to level all lumpy playing fields and right all perceived wrongs. Couldn't we all use one?

    “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” 
    ~ Emile M. Cioran

    Friday, January 8, 2010

    Exploding Evolution

    “The tide of evolution carries everything before it, thoughts no less than bodies, and persons no less than nations.”
    ~ George Santayana

    Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Yet according to a May 2009 study by Pew Research...
    • 32% of Americans believe that evolution occurred over time due to natural processes
    • 22% believe evolution occurred "but that it has been guided by a supreme being" and 
    • 31% still "contend that humans and other livings things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time." 
    Meanwhile, a 2007 Pew study found that 68% of Americans believe in angels and demons. In other words, more than twice as many people believe in angels as believe in evolution.

    Here it is 2010, and a third of the public still thinks that evolution is, well, theoretical. I say it's time for drastic steps.

    Here's my thinking. Some aspects of science — the chemistry of blowing things up, how light can be used to start a fire or the forces at work in a car engine, for example — lend themselves to fun demonstrations. Many of today's adults grew up watching Mr. Wizard's simple science experiments with amazement. Today we have an entire science channel, not to mention shows like Naked Science on the National Geographic channel and the wonderful Nova on PBS.

    However, I have yet to see a demonstration of evolution that remotely approaches the entertainment value of an average episode of Mythbusters. Evolution is too darn slow. Can someone please find a way to make it blow up?

    "I believe that history might be, and ought to be, taught in a new fashion so as to make the meaning of it as a process of evolution intelligible to the young."
    ~ Thomas Huxley

    Thursday, January 7, 2010

    In Praise of Work

    In 2009 people with jobs worried about losing them, people who lost their jobs worried about finding new ones and freelancers like Divinipotent Daily watched their savings dwindle as clients canceled projects and slashed their budgets. But a new year can bring change. The first week of 2010 has a been busy one for me, and it's a good feeling. With the hope that the rusted gears of the economy are finally starting to turn, here are some thoughts about work, illustrated by a few of the magnificent posters created by artists and writers working for the U.S. government's Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.

    “The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one.”
    ~ Oscar Wilde

    "What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do. When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us."
    ~ Julia Cameron

    "I'm a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."
     ~ Thomas Jefferson

    “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.”
    ~ John Ruskin

    "Who was it who said, 'Blessed is the man who has found his work'? Whoever it was, he had the right idea in his mind."
    ~ Mark Twain

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    Have Yourself a Myrrhy Little Christmas

    "A cold coming we had of it,
    Just the worst time of the year
    For a journey, and such a journey:
    The ways deep and the weather sharp,
    The very dead of winter."

    ~ T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi

    Today, January 6th, is a day with many special names — the Feast of the Epiphany in many countries, Little Christmas or Nollaig Bheag in Ireland, La Befana in Italy, Drie Koningen (Three Kings' Day) in the Netherlands and Belgium and the Day the Christmas Decorations Come Down in the house where I grew up. In one way or another, the names commemorate the visit of the Magi — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, the three wise men who, according to the Christian New Testament, followed a star and ended up in a stable in Nazareth with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
    Gold, of course, is always a great gift. Frankincense? One could never have enough incense in pre-deodorant, pre-refrigeration times. But myrrh? What in the name of all that's holy was myrrh? Myrrh gnawed at me every Christmas of my childhood. It was good enough for a gift, but it sounded like a curse. (A related mystery: why I never looked it up in the encylopedia.)

    Fast forward 20 years or so. I was sitting in the offices of Dr. Neville Carmical, who was at the time my ear-nose-and-throat specialist, staring at the sundries on the taboret beside the exam chair. And there it was: a jar marked "myrrh." Dr. Carmical was and I'm sure still is a lovely man. He wore a headband with a light on the front, like a coal miner. He soothed the sore throats of hapless opera singers and relieved the terrible headaches of chronic sinus sufferers. Seeing myrrh in his possession immediately transformed it from a curse to a healing murmur. Never underestimate the regenerative powers of context.

    So here is the low-down on myrrh. According to Wikipedia, myrrh (that's it at right) is a sticky, fragrant resin made from the sap of various North African trees. Used for perfumes and incense in ancient times, it was highly valued and extremely expensive, but not so expensive as to phase the Emperor Nero, who was said to have "burned a year's worth of myrrh at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea."*

    Today, says Wikipedia, myrrh is valued for its antimicrobial properties. You can buy a one pound bag of the stuff for about $20.00 on Amazon. Myrrh oil is a steal at $7.88 an ounce.

    "O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."
    ~ William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), "The Gift of the Magi"

    *All the burning myrrh in the world could not make up for the fact that Nero killed Poppaea — according to legend, he kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. Then again, if there is a hell, Poppaea went straight there. She was a woman in the tradition of Catherine de Medici and Lady Macbeth, encouraging Nero to kill his mother (Agrippina the Younger), his first wife (Octavia) and the philosopher Seneca. No word on her feelings about fiddling.

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010

    Neuroaesthetics: Reconnecting the Sciences with the Arts

    "Art disturbs, science reassures." 
    ~ Georges Braque

    Over the weekend, one of the smart science people I follow on Twitter posted a link to a new Web site called The Beautiful Brain that "illuminates important new questions about creativity, the mind of the artist, and the mind of the observer." The site was founded by Noah Hutton, a recent graduate of Wesleyan whose focus is art history and neuroscience, and Samuel D. McDougle, a musician and neuroscientist.

    "Neuroaesthetics," the study of how science interacts with the creation and appreciation of art and beauty, is one of the site's major interest areas. Wikipedia — the only source I could find that offers a simple, plain English explanation — says this: "Neuroesthetics uses the techniques of neuroscience in order to explain and understand the aesthetic experiences at the neurological level. The topic attracts scholars from many disciplines including neuroscientists, art historians, artists, and psychologists." For a longer, more lyrical description, visit

    "While I recognize the necessity for a basis of observed reality...true art lies in a reality that is felt."
    ~ Odilon Redon

    As a writer and former fine arts major who has spent my life around writers, artists, actors and musicians, my first reaction to the concept of neuroaesthetics was, what's in it for creative people? After reading an essay ("The Promises and Pitfalls of Neuroaesthetics") and listening to a podcast about the Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics Conference, I'm pretty sure the answer is "not much" — but there is a great deal in it for scientists.

    The Copenhagen meeting was the most recent of several efforts to revive the cross-disciplinary thinking that, inspired by towering Renaissance polymaths like Leonardo and Michaelangelo, led to the Age of Enlightenment. (Eminent biologist and theorist E.O. Wilson wrote about this in his 1998 book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge.) However, as Noah Hutton's essay admits, in Copenhagen "the empire of brain science, the enchanted land of aesthetics, and the private club of the artist" were often moving in separate orbits.
    "An artist cannot talk about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture."
    ~ Jean Cocteau

    There is no denying that the sciences have become isolated from one another and from other forms of understanding. Changing this, bringing scientists back in contact with one another and the rest of the world, is a very worthy goal. As the study of laboratory scientists mentioned here yesterday illustrates, cross-disciplinary dialogue can solve problems that cannot be solved by one discipline alone.

    However, artists and scientists have completely different approaches to the world. I would venture to propose that artists have been creating things in pretty much the same ways forever, while scientists — in their pursuit of results than can be duplicated — have become more and more process-bound and isolated. In November 2009, neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer wrote a fascinating article titled "Lying and Creativity" on his blog The Frontal Cortex. It mentions an fMRI study of jazz musicians indicating they deactivate their pre-frontal cortices when improvising. Is that what Einstein was doing when he sat in his garden — not in a laboratory — imagining his world-changing ideas?

    "I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things."
    ~ Henri Matisse

    I wish Hutton and McDougle well. Scientists have much to learn from artists, and their goal is an important one. Some suggestions:
    • Become better communicators. Some of the material on The Beautiful Brain is downright tedious.
    • If you want to learn from artists, take off your lab coats, put aside your analytical instincts and preconceptions and follow their lead. 
    "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."
    ~ T.S. Eliot

    Monday, January 4, 2010

    Brilliant Mistakes: the Science of Serendipity

    "A man's errors are his portals of discovery."
    ~ James Joyce

    The January 2010 issue of Wired includes a fascinating article by neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer titled "Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up." The subject: learning to distinguish laboratory "errors" from unexpected breakthroughs.

    Lehrer leads with the famous story of Bell Labs astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In the mid-1960s the two men searched with a radio telescope for empty regions in space; no matter how hard they tried or how careful they were, they found background noise everywhere. Eventually they contacted Princeton scientist Robert Dicke to see if he could help them figure out what they were doing wrong. But Dicke, a nuclear physicist, was about to launch a space search of his own. His objective: finding traces of the background radiation that would confirm the big bang theory — which he immediately realized was precisely what Penzias and Wilson had mistake.

    "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."
    ~ Albert Einstein

    Lehrer's point is that scientists often don't recognize that an unexpected result is not always an error — some anomalies lead to important discoveries. He describes the work of Kevin Dunbar, "a researcher who studies how scientists study things — how they fail and succeed." Laboratory scientists follow strict protocols in their experiments and, when the results fail to confirm the initial hypothesis, most assume they made an error and start all over again. Dunbar found this is most likely to happen when scientists work exclusively among like-minded, similarly trained people. Interestingly, when scientists are part of an interdisciplinary team and discuss their failures with people who examine problems through different lenses, they sometimes find that the "mistake" is actually a breakthrough.

    Science history offers many examples of mistakes that led to breakthroughs, from vulcanized rubber to the X-ray to penicillin. But the lesson here applies to more than lab experiments. It is difficult to imagine a business situation where considering the ideas of people from different disciplines would not be helpful. One example from my background writing about consumer research: While trained researchers formed and tested hypotheses, I looked for anomalies in survey results, seeing them as potential clues to emerging trends. The moral of the story: when in doubt, ask someone who doesn't think like you.

    “Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”
    ~ Carl Gustav Jung

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    A New Year, A New Decade, A 215 Year-Old Poem

    Greetings, everyone, on the first day of a new decade. Divinipotent Daily ended 2009 with a poem, and it seems fitting to begin 2010 the same way.

    Today's poet: Mary Robinson, an Englishwoman who lived from 1758 to 1800 and kicked up quite a stir at a time when women were expected to sit quietly and stick to their needlepoint. According to the Poetry Foundation's biography, Mary Robinson would have felt right at home in 2010.

    "Her works include...Poems by Mrs. M. Robinson (1791), Monody to the Memory of the Late Queen of France (1793), Audley Fotescue (1795), and Ellinda: or the Abbey of St. Aubert (1800), among many others. Robinson was also known as the first mistress of the Prince of Wales, who would later become King George IV. In addition to writing poetry, Robinson was an ardent feminist and staunch supporter of the rights of women, convictions she displayed by living separately from her husband and having numerous affairs."

    Perhaps we should not be surprised that her poem January, 1795 — with its "Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded; Candor spurn’d, and art rewarded" — is so relevant to our 2010 world. Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

    January, 1795

    by Mary Robinson

    Pavement slipp’ry, people sneezing,
    Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;
    Titled gluttons dainties carving,
    Genius in a garret starving.

    Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
    Courtiers cringing and voracious;
    Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
    Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.

    Wives who laugh at passive spouses;
    Theatres, and meeting-houses;
    Balls, where simp’ring misses languish;
    Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

    Arts and sciences bewailing;
    Commerce drooping, credit failing;
    Placemen mocking subjects loyal;
    Separations, weddings royal.

    Authors who can’t earn a dinner;
    Many a subtle rogue a winner;
    Fugitives for shelter seeking;
    Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

    Taste and talents quite deserted;
    All the laws of truth perverted;
    Arrogance o’er merit soaring;
    Merit silently deploring.

    Ladies gambling night and morning;
    Fools the works of genius scorning;
    Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
    Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

    Some in luxury delighting;
    More in talking than in fighting;
    Lovers old, and beaux decrepid;
    Lordlings empty and insipid.

    Poets, painters, and musicians;
    Lawyers, doctors, politicians:
    Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes,
    Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.

    Gallant souls with empty purses;
    Gen’rals only fit for nurses;
    School-boys, smit with martial spirit,
    Taking place of vet’ran merit.

    Honest men who can’t get places,
    Knaves who shew unblushing faces;
    Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded;
    Candor spurn’d, and art rewarded.

    The poem above and many others can be found on the Web site of the Poetry Foundation.