Monthly Archives: August 2015

Daisy’s Birthday

I took Daisy for her morning walk today. She checked her Facebook account and carefully studied the posts of others. She indicated those she liked, checked whether anyone had liked her previous posts, and posted her own new content. She did the same for LinkedIn. Daisy doesn’t understand what others see in Twitter. She just doesn’t get the tweets, not that she hasn’t tried. She’ll try to creep up on one as low and silent as she can, but at the last moment, they’ll jump into the air and not come down until they’re far away from her. She tried jumping into the air after them, but she always comes down quickly on all fours.

I don’t think Daisy knows what she has in store for her today: quite possibly a hamburger “cake” with nine “candles” rolled from pastrami. Pastrami is like her favorite thing in the whole universe. She gobbles it up so quickly that not even a single memory of its existence remains. Today is Daisy’s birthday. She’s eight year old. May she have many more where those came from.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Parking Lot

A couple nights ago I parked my car in a rather large lot. There were cars in rows upon rows as far as the eye could see, but I usually have a good sense of orientation so I didn’t think much about it at the time. I walked and walked until I reached the main building of the fair grounds. Inside I saw there were halls upon halls, some wide and spacious, and others long and narrow. All along every inch of wall of the halls and hallways was every kind of restaurant you could imagine. Everywhere I looked, people were chatting and eating and clinking glasses. I walked interminably. There were crowds of people walking around me. It was so crowded that people couldn’t help but brush against each other, but nobody complained and nobody seemed concerned about it.

At some point I had decided I’d seen enough of the fair and I wanted to go home. I back-tracked, turning left and then right through the warren of hallways as I had come. When I reached the place at which I had entered, I found a restaurant there. People were chatting and eating and clinking their glasses. The tables were densely packed but I was able to walk between them to the other side where there would probably be a door. I came to a wall with tables next to it but I didn’t see a door. I worked my way along the wall looking for a door leading into the kitchen where there’d probably be a back entrance. There was no door anywhere in the restaurant. I wondered where they got their food from.

The crowd of people that had been walking around me continued walking with me wherever I walked. They tried to help me find a door and offered me many suggestions, but none of them bore fruit. Their helpfulness was slowing me down. I didn’t want to be impolite but I started to walk faster down the hallway looking for other exits, until I started running. I had to get away from that cloying crowd.

There was no exit anywhere. I began to sweat. Then I heard what sounded like a news broadcast somewhere. Reality shifted ever so slightly and I found myself in a universe that made a little more sense to me. There had been another stabbing and a Palestinian had been shot. The x-ray technicians were still on strike. The Maariv bridge would be blown up at 6 a.m. this Friday to pave the way for the new Tel Aviv metro railway. A Palestinian prisoner under administrative detention was in the 60th day of his hunger strike and doctors feared that damage to his brain might be irreversible.

It was 7:00 a.m. Wednesday.

Yes, this was a dream. We all have them. They usually start out making sense and then develop their own logic along the way. They always seem logical at the time we are dreaming them, but after we awaken we judge them by a new more rational standard. I read an interesting article four months ago about what’s going on in our brains when we dream. See The Science of Dreaming, by Robert J. Hoss. I think Hoss wrote something like when we are awake signals flow in our brain from our perceptual circuitry to our memory circuitry, but in dreaming the signals flow in the opposite direction. I won’t go into why this might be happening this way, although that was also fascinating. Although Hoss made reference to the work of researchers Hobson and McCartney stating that dreams might result from our higher brain functions trying to make sense of the random electrical activity in our lower brain functions during our dream state, it occurred to me that our rationality and the sense of it might be hard-wired into our brain circuitry and not learned as we go along in life. The truth of P may imply Q, but the truth of Q doesn’t necessarily imply P. Maybe we’ll never be more rational than we are now.

Anyway, time to get up and face another day. Next time I’ll try to remember to tie a balloon to my antenna and drop pebbles along the way.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Something Happened

Charlie Jones attended a party of friends and acquaintances in one of the trendy studio apartments near Washington Square on the lower east side of Manhattan. Charlie brought some beer, one of the girls brought wine. Someone brought some hash and someone else brought some acid to get high on the music. One of the guys rolled a mixture of Cherry Blend pipe tobacco and hashish into a clumsy fat cigarette held together by spit, and passed it around during the good part of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Yeah. Wow. Cool. Awesome. Did you hear that? Yeah. Wow. Cool.

This wasn’t Charlie’s first time. When the girl sitting next to him passed him the joint, he took a drag deep into his lungs so that they were filled almost to the bursting point, and let it out slowly without coughing. Then he handed the joint to the guy sitting on the other side of him.

Charlie was beginning to feel pretty mellow when he saw the air in front of him waver. No, it was more like shimmer, and then a small dark point appeared in the middle of the shimmering. Another point appeared and then another point. At first Charlie thought they might have been flies or gnats or mosquitos or something like that, but they seemed to be locked into their positions, in the middle of the air, unmoving. It was the strangest thing he’d ever seen. One of the points started to grow into a small ball, like a balloon inflating. The poles were dark violet and the surface went through a rainbow progression, with a bright yellow line around the equator, and then deepening back to dark violet at the opposite pole. Other points were doing the same thing at the same time seemingly in complete synch with each other. The balls formed a straight line in the air that quickly rotated 45 degrees back and forth, like a pendulum or maybe like watching just one leg walking. The round balls joined each other becoming an oblong object in the air. Then it became a thin line suddenly, blinked into a vertical shimmering, and then disappeared.

Charlie asked the girl sitting next to him whether she had seen that. Seen what? she asked. Charlie turned to the guy on the other side of him and asked whether he’d seen it. The guy looked blankly at Charlie, who tried to describe what he had seen, but it wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen before. The guy said like wow … cool … man. You been droppin’ acid or somethin’? Charlie said no, he didn’t think so, but maybe the hash had been laced with something. Yeah, wow, awesome, cool, the girl sitting next to him said. She took his hand. They stood up unsteadily and walked to the bedroom.

***

Adam Yerushalmi sat in the reception area of Professor Freindlischer’s office. Professor Freindlischer was a hypnotist who specialized in helping people quit smoking. He had a fairly good success rate, or so they said, and seemed well thought of in the Tel Aviv area. In Israel, in spite of the fact that socialized medicine was considered pretty high up the scale compared to other countries around the world, even America, everybody who could afford it only went to the professors and heads of medical departments, instead of going to younger doctors and inexperienced interns.

The professor called Adam into his consulting room. He looked over Adam’s paperwork mainly making sure that all the waiver clauses were signed. Adam was skeptical of this whole hypnosis thing. He’d tried a number of different treatments but none of them ever made a dent in his nicotine habit. He doubted he was suggestible (or gullible) enough to be hypnotized. He was his own man.

The professor came around from behind his desk to sit down in a chair next to Adam. He told Adam to relax. While the professor was talking to him, Adam could see the professor indistinctly out of the corner of his eye but he was mostly conscious of the professor’s voice. The voice slowly faded into the background of Adam’s consciousness which remained crystal clear. The last thing Adam remembered being conscious of was wondering when this hypnotic trance state was supposed to kick in.

A siren started to sound, building up like a pianist stubbing all the keys with his thumb nail from the bass notes of the left side of the keyboard all the way up to the highest notes of the right side. The receptionist turned up the radio full volume and opened the door to the professor’s consulting room, which was something she had been explicitly instructed never to do under any circumstances. The siren continued its insistent blaring.

The professor hurriedly attempted to snap Adam out of his trance state. “I will count backwards, from three to one, and when I say one you will wake up … Three, two, one. Wake up, man!” he implored but Adam had not responded. The professor slapped Adam on the back of his shoulder and shouted, “Wake up, damn you!” The receptionist stood nervously in the doorway and shouted at the professor, “Carl, for God’s sake! We’ve got to get to the shelter!”

Adam seemed to snap out of his trance state but he didn’t seem to know what was going on around him. The professor shouted at him to listen to the siren, there were incoming missiles from Gaza, and they all had to go down to the bomb shelter as quickly as possible.

They rushed out of the office without bothering to lock the doors and ran down two flights of stairs to the bomb shelter in the basement of the building. Just as the professor pushed Adam into the reinforced concrete shelter, a surface-to-air missile defense missile intercepted the incoming rocket high above the office building exploding less than ten meters away from the rocket. Twisted shards and grapefruit sized pieces of metal picked up speed in their fall to earth causing minor damage to some rooftops and the outer walls of buildings in the vicinity.

Adam thought he heard a heavy silence a few meters away from him as though all the sound had been sucked out of the space. Then he heard a small high-pitched “tink” noise, followed by a deeply rolling discordant blat that seemed to widen until he felt it viscerally buzz-saw through his mid-section. Just as quickly the sound contracted, becoming more harmonic, soft, and plucky like the short strings of a harp. Again he heard the “tink” noise and then silence.

Adam asked the professor and the receptionist whether they had also heard the strange noises he had heard. They both looked at Adam oddly. Adam tried to tell the professor what he had heard but he had no words in Hebrew or in English to describe the shapes of the sounds, let alone the sounds themselves. The professor thought Adam might have suffered some sort of post-traumatic stress from the indelicate way the professor had had to wake Adam out of his trance. He’d seen it before in the Army. He suggested to Adam that he visit a doctor. Professor Freindlischer thanked God Adam had signed all the waiver clauses. The Hamas missile attack did not qualify as an act of God, but at least nobody could claim the professor had been negligent.

Adam went to see his family doctor and tried to explain to him what he had heard that day, still fumbling for words. Adam asked the doctor for a pen and piece of paper, and proceeded to draw pictures of the sounds. The doctor typed in “synesthesia” in the symptoms box of Adam’s Patient’s Record and printed out a referral for an MRI.

Adam’s MRI appointment was scheduled three months later for 3:00 in the morning. The technician was courteous and rather attractive, to tell the truth. He had to wait an hour for the resident doctor to review the results and type up her professional opinion: no indications of pathology in any of the layers of the patient’s brain that were imaged. No findings. Adam was instructed to return to the referring doctor for an interpretation of the results of the MRI scan.

Adam understood the MRI results and he knew what he heard.

***

Ibrahim bin Amin heard the roar of rockets launched from the open lot between his building and the neighboring building. He dropped the newspaper he’d been reading on the carpet and yelled to his wife, Jamilah, to grab their little daughter, Dalal, to run down the stairs to the tunnel entry the Hamas had recently built under their building. Dalal insisted they take her teddy bear, Kasim, too. Ibrahim scooped up Kasim in his hand and they rushed out of their apartment. Jamilah held Dalal in one arm and the hem of her chador with her other hand so as not to trip going down the stairs.

When they reached the ground floor Ibrahim tried to lift the heavy iron door covering the entrance to the tunnel but it didn’t budge a millimeter. Ibrahim grabbed Jamilah’s arm and ran with her and Dalal frantically to the next building hoping there might be an open entrance to a tunnel.

There was but it was guarded by a hooded Hamas freedom fighter pointing his Kalashnikov at them. They froze in the entrance to the building. The freedom fighter pulled off his face mask and told Ibrahim it’s him, Abdul bin Ali, they were at madras together when they were kids. Abdul opened the heavy iron door and motioned Ibrahim and his wife and daughter over to the ladder going down into the tunnel. Ibrahim hugged Abdul gratefully and helped Jamilah find her footing on the top rung of the ladder. When she reached the tunnel floor below Ibrahim handed down Dalal into Jamilah’s extended arms.

High above Gaza, hidden in the clouds, an Israeli jet pilot released a missile and guided it through his crosshairs and the precise coordinates his onboard system had received from the Central Command’s integrated defense system calculated from the trajectory of one of the incoming Gazan rockets. The men who had launched the rocket were long gone but the cumbersome rocket launcher was still there in the pilot’s sights. A yellow-red light suddenly filled the pilot’s grid display and then cleared to reveal a crater where the rocket launcher had stood and two hills of rubble where the buildings had been.

There was a deafening blast that Ibrahim had felt before he heard it. He heard Jamilah and Dalal screaming below and saw Abdul’s bare feet under a section of an upper floor that had collapsed on them. Then he lost consciousness.

Jamilah and Dalal were able to escape through another part of the tunnel. When she came outside, she ran back to the building where Ibrahim was buried under the rubble. Jamilah and Dalal screamed and keened for Allah or someone to help them. Finally some men came to try to dig through the rubble of the collapsed building to find Ibrahim and Abdul.

After several hours, it was late afternoon already, Jamilah remembered the muezzin’s call to Asr prayer, the men found Abdul and Ibrahim. Abdul was pronounced dead, a shahid. Ibrahim was bleeding profusely from a nasty gash on the side of his head but he was still breathing. They lifted him onto a door from the mound of rubble and carried him to a pickup truck they had flagged down, and rushed him, along with Jamilah and Dalal, to a UN field hospital nearby.

Two days later, when Ibrahim regained consciousness, Jamilah and Dalal were by his side praising Allah for his greatness and his mercy.

The day after Ibrahim came to, while one of the NGO nurses was entertaining Dalal, Ibrahim whispered to Jamilah that something strange had happed to him during the time he had been buried under the rubble. Jamilah leaned close to hear his words. “I felt something protect me,” he said softly.

“Allah be praised,” Jamilah answered.

“No,” Ibrahim said, “not Allah. Something else. I don’t know what but I felt it. It was like a large hand holding up a section of the roof that had fallen on me.”

“Ibrahim, my beloved, that must have been the hand of Allah,” Jamilah smiled at her husband.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said, “but who knows? Anyway there was something else. The doctors told me my heart had stopped.”

Jamilah turned pale.

Ibrahim took her hand and pressed it to his heart. He said, “I felt a young hand reach into my chest, without cutting it open, and take hold of my heart, squeezing it and releasing it, squeezing it and releasing it, until it began to pump my blood on its own.”

“Allah be praised. Inshallah,” Jamilah whispered.

***

Tink Blat sat on a bench in the park near his home watching his brother Zic play grzbll. The ptchr threw a slow bll toward a coordinate a meter above the plt next to Zic’s feet. Zic slammed the bll with his bt with such power that it stood still in midair but the sky expanded outward by a factor of 10,000 and everyone could see the stars winking in the night sky although it was the middle of the day.

Tink was eleven years old. He was in sixth grade. His older brother Zic was fourteen. He was in high school already and studying to be a mathematician.

Tink took his tesseract out of his pocket and expanded it so he could see the spheroid screen floating inside it. He loved watching it because there were an infinite (I josh you not) number of channels. Tink was supposed to be doing his homework on one of the educational channels, but he preferred to watch the hyposphere channels instead. His mother and father limited him to watching his favorite channels just two hours a day and only after completing his homework assignments. Besides, they didn’t like the amount of violence Tink was watching. What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

He was watching the flattened characters running down some stairs before a bomb fell on them.

“Hey Tink,” Zic said sneaking up on Tink from inside. “You’re supposed to be doing your homework. I wonder what Mom and Dad would say if they knew what channel you’re watching.”

Tink changed to his homework channel. “Don’t you dare tell on me,” he threatened, “or I’ll tell them about the window you broke playing grzbll last week.”

Tink looked at his assignment for today. Let’s see. The sum of the interior angles of any triangle on a plane surface is … 180 degrees, he said out loud. The sum of the interior angles of a triangle on a spherical surface is … 180 x (1 + 4f) … anything between 180 and 540 degrees. The sum of the interior angles of any tetrahedron on a plane surface is … between 180 and 720 degrees. The sum of the interior angles of any hypertetrahedron or pentatope is … 180 to 3600 degrees.

Tink looked around for his brother Zic to see whether he was watching him. Zic had gone back to play grzbll.

Tink flipped back to the hyposphere channel he’d been watching. One of the characters he had been interested in was buried in a building that had collapsed. Tink’s eyes began to fill with tears when he saw that the character’s heart had stopped beating. Tink couldn’t bear it and reached into the spheroid screen with his hand. His arm appeared to him to become elongated and small. His arm became longer and thinner until he touched the character’s dead heart, wrapped his fingers around it, squeezed it, and relaxed … squeezed it and relaxed.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Of This I Am Certain

Of what can we be certain? Not much, I’m afraid. We hear others say that they are certain of a thing and sometimes they can be quite persuasive in their assertions. Sometimes we say we are certain of a thing, but sometimes we say it to persuade others and, in doing so, we hope to persuade ourselves. Sometimes we just don’t want to stand out from the crowd as someone who is uncertain thereby drawing the concentrated and collective ire of the crowd.

But in our heart of hearts, when nobody can read our thoughts, when we have no choice but to decide for ourselves, a matter of life and death, of what can we be certain? This is Practical Philosophy 101 taught in the School of Hard Knocks.

We are certain of the truth. The problem is that there is a wide range of things out there asserting their truth. How does one determine the relative degrees of truth in each category of assertion?

I have come up with a list of eight categories representing the range of assertions of truth, based on degrees of certainty as I conceive them:

The following two categories would be suitable to a rational person:

  1. Tautological:

“An elephant is an elephant” and “an elephant is walking down the street is true because an elephant is walking down the street is true”. The statements are constructed to always be true. Even if “an elephant is walking down the street” is false the statements will be true. Such truths have the highest degree of certainty but are totally useless, no matter what the situation is.

  1. Formal:

Systems, like mathematics, logic, and games are based on a formal set of axioms and rules for transforming those axioms into new propositions. Axioms and givens are assertions that cannot be proved within the formal system but, if you don’t accept them, you won’t be able to derive the propositions, which might be very useful to you under certain circumstances. Given that “all Communists read Karl Marx” and “John Doe is a Communist”, then “John Doe reads Karl Marx”; however, the assertion that “John Doe reads Karl Marx” doesn’t imply that “John Doe is a Communist”. Go tell that to Senator Joseph McCarthy. A formal proposition may or may not be true, depending on the truth of its axioms or givens, or the correctness of the application of the rules of derivation and transformation of the proposition from those axioms or givens. Formal systems have the second highest degree of certainty and can generate useful propositions that are not readily apparent to the average person, but no detective except for Sherlock Holmes ever relied almost totally on logic to solve a crime.

The next category would be suitable to a pragmatic person:

  1. Verifiable:

The truth of verifiable assertions has been verified or is capable of being verified by observation using pragmatic methodology. The verifiable category consists of three sub-categories, in order by degrees of certainty:

  • Verified by oneself:

Those assertions that you’ve verified yourself with your own eyes using a methodology that makes sense to you have the highest degree of verifiable certainty. No reasoned argument by any astronomer, government official, or journalist will persuade you that there’s no truth to reports of UFO sightings, if you’ve seen one with your own eyes. The ground beneath my feet is solid and my feet are also solid, and no amount of explanation will persuade me otherwise.

  • Verified by a reputable person:

If you are not a scientist or the phenomenon in question is out of the realm of your personal experience (macro, micro, or quantum), then claims of assertions verified by professional people of reputation, like scientists, doctors, teachers, or experts may be taken as the next best degree of certainty. In other words, if you haven’t seen a UFO yourself, then you’d best accept the certainty of the assertions of astronomers who claim that none of the UFO sightings are credible.

  • Verifiable in principle:

This is an assertion in the form of a hypothesis which may be tested against specific criteria agreed upon by a community of professionals in order to determine whether it is true or false. Such assertions are much better than assertions that are so vague or out of the realm of reality, that they can never be verified to be true or false.

The next category would be suitable to a person who often exercises his judgment:

  1. Contingent:

The truth of these kinds of assertions depends on the truth of some other assertion. They could be formal, like “if it snows, my roof will be covered” or they might be informal, like hearsay or what you read in the newspaper. Jack told me that he was planning to kill Jill. Sources high in the government suggested Jim had been acting suspiciously for a long time. Astronomers discover a new Earth-like planet outside our solar system. The truth about who killed Jill depends on the truth of what Jack told me. The truth about Jim depends on the truth of those sources. The truth about the new Earth-like planet depends on the truth of those astronomers. Judges have to deal with contingent assertions based on the weight of the evidence after listening to testimonies and arguments. The stakes involved in the outcomes of such judgments can be very high.

The next category is suitable for most of us who have opinions:

  1. Relative:

“Well, it may not be true for you, but it’s true for me” and “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” are examples of relative assertions. These are just subjective opinions masquerading as truths: my truth, your truth, and their truths. There’s no need to argue because everybody is right in his own way.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

Opinions represent the sum of our personal experiences. We tend not to verify them or to check them too carefully because they are, well, after all, our opinions. Except for a friend of mine from many years ago who told me there was no sense in arguing with him, since he had kept careful records of the fact that he was right 97% of the time and so I didn’t have much of a chance of being right or persuading him. My oldest son made a similar claim, a couple years back, that he was right 100% of the time because whatever argument he made, if I persuaded him that he was wrong, he would quick-as-a-wink switch positions and claim that this was his opinion all along. Other people’s opinions are generally disregarded because they are, well, not our opinions. Objectively speaking, the opinions of professionals, providing they come from the domains of their profession, are worth more in terms of certainty than the opinions of non-professionals or professionals outside their domains.

The next category is suitable for creative types of people:

  1. Fictional:

Books, theater, and dreams make up these kinds of assertions. Everybody knows they are constructed from false assumptions and yet people willingly suspend their judgments to accept the assertions as true in order to be entertained, to be moved, to learn a higher truth, or against their will. The experience in which one immerses himself is virtual. It is not true in reality. It never happened but it might have happened. The character doesn’t really exist, but what he says or does moves us as much as if he really did exist. Such assertions are known to be false at a lower level but are often held to be true at a higher level. Sometimes we are hard pressed to decide on which level we should be focused.

The next category is suitable to “True Believer” proponents:

  1. Beliefs:

Beliefs are like axioms, assertions not to be questioned or proved. We all have them but they can vary greatly from person to person. This category consists of two sub-categories:

  • Personal beliefs:

These are assertions like “the world that I perceive is the world as it really exists”, “other people have minds, think their own thoughts, and feel their own feelings”, and “the mind is not extinguished just because the body dies”. You’ll probably never be able to verify these assertions scientifically but, still, you are “certain” they are true. You may have been born with these kinds of beliefs or you may have picked them up along the way while you were growing up and accumulating experience.

  • Inculcated beliefs:

These assertions include religious beliefs, political beliefs, economic beliefs, racial beliefs, sexual beliefs, and humanitarian beliefs among many others. You were not born with these beliefs. You may have been subjected to these beliefs when you were too young or unequipped to decide for yourself or you may have picked them up along the way while you were growing up and accumulating experience. There are usually organizations and institutions that impart and reinforce those beliefs in you from time to time. These organizations and institutions are served by your beliefs in them, and they will do everything in their collective power to increase their reach as much as they can and to survive as long as they can. Make no mistake: these organizations and institutions grow in darkness. They cringe in the light. Their assertions are not only unverifiable; they resist verification vehemently, often violently.

The last category is most suitable to sellers of snake oil:

  1. Lies:

Lies are assertions we know to be false, but which we make anyway in order to gain some temporary advantage by fooling somebody else. Lies are always claimed to be true and the liar would hope that they would not be easily verified. One of the problems with lies is that over time the memory forgets the lie that was told and only remembers the truth. A person who lies becomes a slave to the memory of the person to whom he lied. That and Kant’s Categorical Imperative “what if everyone lied and no one told the truth?” Language would lose its meaning and purpose, and civilization would collapse. We believe lies because we are too trusting. Trust is not a strength. It is a vulnerability. Often we have no choice but to trust someone, but if we do have the means of verifying a person’s claims without going too far out of our way, we should “trust but verify” or “praise the Lord, but pass the ammunition”.

If you have reached this point without finding some category capable of providing you a modicum of certainty, then you must be a true skeptic, one who doubts everything, no matter what, and is paralyzed by his or her doubt. Skeptics don’t assert. They respond to assertions by saying “no it’s not”.

Of course, you would probably say “no they don’t”.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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