Bad Numbers

Proudly, a child learns that one plus one equals two. It is a useful way to organize and abstract the world, the gateway to control. Numbers are a magical and important tool of civilization. We cannot imagine life without them.

But we must always be careful to understand the limits of such abstraction. No real world manifestation is truly equal to another. Even a molecule is different from all other molecules by virtue of its leptons and quarks.

A child can understand this. One rock plus one rock is two rocks. But if one is a pebble and the other a boulder the idea seems a little silly. If two are equally sized but one is made out of gold, other considerations come into play.

We find that constraining definitions are required _ are we counting apples, oranges, or a mixture? By the time we load on all the qualifications, one plus one equals two seems a lot less glorious and absolute.

We thus need to be extremely careful with numbers, even before we get to concepts of “many.” And that is the root of the problems we have with statistical valuation, and the application of enumeration to ethical concepts.

Academic Dues

Just read a newish book What do we owe the future which is a take on academic philosophy. That will inspire a few essays. Overall, I was impressed at the earnestness, but dismayed at the irrelevance. A lot like trying to read through an ancient theological paper explaining the hierarchies of heavenly hosts.

In short, I could hardly accept the basic assumptions. After that, I found most of the logic indefensible. And of course that would make all conclusions suspect, except that the author had only the most nebulous conclusions. And none at all that relate to our actual daily lives.

A perfect foil for my own approach, which is to avoid the ineffable and concentrate on the philosophy of breakfast. 

What most amazed me _ as I suppose a medieval peasant would be amazed at writers _ is that some people can make a living in such a way. In fact one of the admired philosophers described raced about like a madman, constantly coming up with algebraic formulations of morality while ignoring, as far as I could tell, all else about him.

Yet, I am grateful for the kick in the mind, to give me a pleasant week or so of my own ruminations on the subject.


Mud may not sound like much _ wet dirt after all _ but it is often a sign of civilization. Muddy fields are more common than muddy forests; muddy roads have churned across landscapes for millennia.

But it is in building things that various types of mud are most useful. Mud on thatch, mud huts, and, of course even today, bricks. Without mud a lot of the humans in the world would be without shelter.

Mud can be slimy and smelly and dangerous. It can be slippery and soothing and delightful. Especially for kids.

Sculptors form it into statues and other shapes, either to stand on their own or as models for sculptures constructed of other materials. And we still use plates and tiles and high-tech ceramics.

Today it is often hard to contemplate origins. We are too busy and rushed. How many times do we consider the cow when we sit in a leather sofa? How much time can we waste wondering how our cereal bowl was made? And bricks are just stones somehow magically shaped into standard sizes. Mud _ugh _ get the mop. 

Possibly there are too many marvels demanding our time. The simple things are lost in the shuffle. Just possibly, that is too bad.


Sand and dust may exist on almost any asteroid or planet _ a few may even have water beaches. But only life can create soil, a mixture of sand, dust, and organic matter.

Oh, I know science fiction blandly declares that we could grow food in the “soil” of Mars or the moon, but that is simply a substrate _ like hydroponic water _ until it crawls with fungi, bacteria, and the residues of plant decay.

Soil is amazing stuff, truly a world in a thimbleful. And a lot more rare than we like to believe _ three quarters of the earth’s surface is water after all, and chunks of the rest are solid ice or bone-dry desert. Even where it exists, soil forms a very thin veneer on the local geology.

Soil is necessary for most human crops, and even remote Islanders surviving on products of the sea like to grow a few things. Soil is more an indication that life on land exists and how healthy it is, rather than a requirement.

Like everything else, soil is easily contaminated by the products of our industrial civilization. Once its organic properties are killed off, it returns to dust and sand. Possibly never to become soil again, depending on what the pollutants were.

We ignore soil at our peril. Easy to take for granted, dirt underfoot, but the core of many of our experienced ecologies.


Sand on the beach is a wonderful, mysterious, transcendent miracle. I let it run through my fingers grain by grain and dream of eternity. It represents not the foundation or beginning of everything, but a perfect implausible marker of this exact time.

After the big bang, there were billions of years of solar formation and explosion. Elements like silicon forming out of hydrogen and helium. Trace minerals here and there that grouped to form more suns, asteroid clumps, planets, the earth beneath my beach chair.

And over more billions of years, after the world formed, creation of rocks, creation of water, change in air, erosion by rain ice and sea to form pebbles, wear the pebbles into grains, compact them once again into rock, erode them once more into sand, pile them up with the help of the moon tides. And here I am, billions of years trickling out of my palm.

The sand was here before life began, it may outlast it. But, like us, as the universe runs down it will cease to be.

I don’t worry much about that. I am more intrigued by the fact of what its existence implies.

And I realize once again that one need not travel far to arrive at wonder and wisdom.


“Dust to dust” is sanctimoniously intoned at many funerals, as a sober reminder and warning of human origins and endings. I expand that to encompass the entire universe. Dust arises from quantum effects, we suppose, and everything follows from its later behavior. Dust clouds drift in space, suns accumulate, burn, explode. Elements form and clump into planets and eventually all may be cold dust once more.

Life is little more than a drive to survive. Conscious life seems to center on the importance of continuation. Once a person or a tribe escapes a desperate hardscrabble existence, the mind reaches for “what next.” A thousand year Reich, an eternity of heaven or hell, generational estates and so on. Some even dream of the continuation of their own civilization.

But with eight billion people around these days, dust to dust remains true. Not only my body, but also my hopes, fears, accomplishments good and bad. In time _ if there really is such a thing as time _ we are all inconsequential.

But those moments between dust and dust have been very important to me. In fact it is me. And accepting that fact _ not claptrap about the future _ I become and remain real. At least as real as the dust at my feet.

I am not against life, or accomplishment. I remain proud of all I have done. However I will know that whatever the future may be, it does not care.


Political season brings out the worst in everyone. I often think the old saying should be amended to “those that can do; those that can’t teach; those who can’t figure out either run for office.”

My image of a clown is always Emmett Kelly. Sad, clueless, dressed to attract attention. Attempting simple tasks, failing at everything. The only real difference between him and the media buffoons who now become serious candidates is that he was silent.

Clowns often perform in groups. Some are the out front stars, but behind them are ranks of lesser performers, these days represented by publicists and ad creators. And of course running the whole show, almost unnoticed, the ringmaster billionaire.

It helps to think of most of these well-meaning but often frightening figures as relatively harmless clowns. After the show ends they will fade away. Inconsequential sidelights to the main events. Back to shouting on street corners and complaining to friends over beer and wine.

Elections roll by, civilization usually survives. Momentary frenzy jolts the system, then just about all of us return to our daily lives. And the clowns retreat behind the sideshow tents and become almost normal.

Hypnotic Waves

There are apparently many ways of centering oneself. Water, for example. For me, there are few things more effective at achieving a true meditative then sitting in any season within a few feet of a shoreline on a large body of water.

Water itself is hypnotic. It is always the same and always different, static and restless. It frames far vistas and hides vast mysteries. Deeper thought only entangles the eternal and infinite, including the origin of life itself.

Watching waves break on a shore is sharing a glimpse of the eternal. Billions of years before me, presumably waves just like these broke on a shore just like this long before the first DNA appeared. Probably similar waves will do so long after all I know is extinct. I am centered in a moment out of forever.

Sometimes it takes a while to settle in. I am always amazed at how the view puts all artwork to shame. The ruffles caused by wind, reflective patterns from rocks and pebbles, inexorably advancing and receding tides. Flotsam and seaweed and bubbles and _ well _ everything and one immense totality.

So a half hour or so later I am refreshed and tired and whole again. I blink and get up and try to retain some of the calm peace for a while as I reenter the chaotic world.

Nothing has happened. Nothing more than what has been happening for a very long time.

Fall Phantoms

Autumn in temperate zones is stereotyped as a season of melancholy. Leaves fall, flowers die, and all that one can anticipate in the short run are the harsh snowstorms and brutal cold of winter.

I used to go along with that common perception. But I now come to realize how adaptable my mind can be. We are very fortunate creatures. Given basic minimums of food, shelter, and security, we can indeed make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven, or a nice month of November.

The days grow shorter, the sun weakens, but the crisp brilliant daylight is glorious. Cold removes not only flowers, but also insects. And, mostly, the short days and new outdoor requirements bring welcome fresh perspectives on just about everything.

That is, after all, why so many people claim to love living in a place where there are seasons. Especially now when our daily lives and pleasures are relentlessly similar no matter what time or place.

I welcome snow storms _well the first snow storm, anyway. Nothing like it in July.

And mostly I am grateful that I can still appreciate the weather, the climate, being an animal in a fantastic universe. Hardly a melancholy moment in sight. 

Wave Inaction

Our modern world overflows with stress. We are advised to periodically withdraw from it into isolated meditation. Yet there remains an in-between state in which we remain aware of our environment, but are detached and engaged with inner harmonies.

I spent such a time at an off-season beach yesterday, sitting on the water line as, inexorably, tide advanced in rivers and mounds of brown sea bubbles. Shafts of sunlight broke through leaden low clouds, causing sparkling light dances on the bay that could make an artist weep. Mist cloaked the far shore, a few birds soundlessly flew by.

I thought of very little, noticed this and that, unaware of time itself. Every once in a while I realized the water had crept closer. My body slowed to match my mind. And thoughts of the infinite and eternal floated comfortably among others of the local and transient.

Perhaps the raucous grind of industrial progress mandates that there be a rigidly militant meditation in counterbalance. Sometimes I need that cure. But too often, I think, I do not take advantage of quietly observing and relaxing as if on a front porch in the evening. No matter what the view.

Often it is difficult to follow one’s own best advice. Sometimes it is impossible. But I know I should make the effort, and, like yesterday, I always return rewarded.