Sunday, March 26, 2017


The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent, at every turn,
Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

~ Wordsworth, Simplon Pass, The Prelude

I remember how much I loved this passage back in college, when I first encountered it. I kept re-reading it, blissing out on “The immeasurable height / Of woods decaying, never to be decayed” and “Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn,” and the rest of the vivid description and verbal music.

“Woods decaying, never to be decayed” — what a gorgeous oxymoron! It made me remember a term in mathematics: asymptote — a condition of ever approaching but never reaching. And that’s as good an approximation of eternity as any.

Milosz might call the Simplon Pass passage an example of the “poetry of vitality,” the imaginative poetry we write in youth — imagistic, intuitive, daring. Then comes a period of the “poetry of the mind” that tends more toward ideas and moderate viewpoints; it reads more like an essay. On the whole, this fits Milosz’s development — though even in his old age he wrote several wonderfully imaginative poems that are among his best. But when it comes to Wordsworth, critics keep bewailing the loss of the vivid genius he had in his youth and his turn toward more abstract and didactic writing.

Yet the Prelude is peculiar in that it is a mix of images and ideas, a product of much maturation and revision. These days, having myself taken a turn toward essay writing, the prose (mostly) of the mind, my immediate reaction to this familiar passage was, “Ah, those Romantics! Having turned away from conventional religion, how they keep on searching for signs of some Universal Mind, or Great Spirit, that animates all.” And where better to find such signs than in the sublime grandeur of the Alps (“sublime” in the Kantian sense: the kind of overwhelming beauty and energy that almost frightens us — “for beauty is but the beginning of terror” ~ Rilke)

Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.


Simplon Pass; Rolf Nagel

It seems that all major Romantics were Transcendentalists by any other name. The winds, the clouds,

Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree

That “one mind” goes back to ancient Greece and Heraclitus, and the idea of the universal Logos, a kind of cosmic intelligence in which we share.

The Romantics sought the signs of the Universal Mind or Spirit in the splendor of nature. (Here “Apocalypse” stands for “revelation,” not the end of the world.) In fact for them it was Nature, with a capital N. They taught us to love nature — even to worship it. They celebrated its beauty as it has never been celebrated before. And note that, important as the “one mind” is to Wordsworth, after mentioning the human — “the features / Of the same face” — he turns again to what we commonly classify as nature — “blossoms upon one tree.”

We have learned a great deal from the Romantics. Modernity is in many ways a continuation of the Romantic revolution. But as for the Great Spirit, so essential to Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Shelley (whom critics classify as a “mystical atheist”), I think at least some of us don’t feel we need it.

We’ve searched for it — went to Buddhist meditation retreats and shamanic drumming sessions, in a quest to find the “real god,” not the crude and flawed man-made deities — and found none. We’ve read and talked about Cosmic Consciousness, about the Universe with a capital U — and discovered that yes, we adore the Universe and the fact that every atom in us was once inside a star, but — the Immortal Beloved and Friend and ever-available Companion we yearn for not out there, but only within us, as our inner life, and among us, when we find kindred minds.

Nature is still as splendid to us as it was to the Romantics. But we know more about science, and see nature working according to its laws — and the more we know about these laws, the more awe-inspiring and astonishing nature appears (“Science is the poetry of reality,” as Dawkins put it). And then there are the marvelous workings of the human brain — perceptions, thoughts, trying to grasp the wilderness of astrophysics and the equally great wilderness of consciousness. The awe never ceases — but without the “one mind” or “great spirit” supernaturalism that sometimes seems to pervade Romantic poetry (cf Shelley’s Mont Blanc or Coleridge’s Eolian Harp). 

I have to admit, however, that the “One Mind” gives Romantic poets that extra layer of meaning that works quite well. The One Mind, the Universal Spirit — those in themselves are poetic concepts.

But do I feel nostalgic for this kind of “transcendentalism”? At moments, but not very often. In the past secularism was seen as a loss of the sacred, a wound from which humanity could never heal. But now, some have noted, we live in the era of the “happy atheist.” The happy atheist does have a sense of the sacred (nature, the universe) and freely admits to being in awe — of nature, great art, the collective human genius. He or she does feel connected to both the universe and humanity. And that is sufficient connection, and sufficient delight.

I do not feel impoverished because of being secular. On the contrary, I feel the richer for it, fully appreciating the wonders of nature and the human mind. And the latter means that I am also fascinated by religious thinking and what it inspired — such as monastic orders. Below is the Simplon Hospice (here “hospice” means shelter, or mountain lodging for travelers) owned by the Bernardines. 

Speaking of no beginning or end:

“There was a reviewer who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment.” ~ Jackson Pollock

One of the interesting (in an odd way) things about Pollock is that his main teacher was Thomas Hart Benton, who painted in this manner: 

Benton: Hay

But then it took a while before Pollock became Pollock, i.e. developed his unique style and method of working. And Benton’s “rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence” did have a lasting impact.


~ “[One] reason atheists might hesitate to say they know there is no God is because of a long standing, deeply confusing, and insidious equivocation the major monotheisms have foisted on us for centuries. They conflate the metaphysical concept of a “ground of all being” principle with the personal, interventionist gods of their religious traditions.

Now a metaphysical principle that explains why everything exists might be intelligible and defensible and so I am agnostic about that. But even if such a thing exists, it is incoherent to think of it as a personal being given everything we have ever experienced about personality, which shows it clearly to be a spatio-temporal experience of complex organisms and not at all the kind of thing that can exist outside of space and time.

In fact the problems with talking about God as personal were known all the way back to the ancients and have always been known and acknowledged by the most sophisticated theistic philosophers, even as the latter have engaged in all sorts of unconvincing ad hoc explanations about how the impersonal god of philosophy can somehow be reconciled with their faith traditions’ baseless and anthropomorphic beliefs about gods who act in history.

It’s as absurd to say that the “ground of all being”, if it is an intelligible thing at all, is personal as it is to say “gravity” is personal. It’s sheer confusion. And an impersonal ground of all being is so profoundly irrelevant to all the things that people want from a “god” that if that’s all you mean by the kind of “God” that could exist, and if you know a personal God can’t? You essentially are an atheist who knows there is no God of the only socially relevant kind.

So just join me already in calling yourself a gnostic atheist, an atheist who knows there is no God.” ~


Once I had my “It’s just another mythology” perception shift about Judeo-Christianity, there was no way I could literalize a personal, interventionist god. I knew 100% that there is no god and no afterlife, but I wasn’t sure how to deal with the “ground of being” or “outside of time and space” ideas. This essay helps: an impersonal ‘ground of being’ cannot be conflated with the kind of interventionist god that people want. And if god can’t act against a person’s free will and can’t violate the laws of nature, then it’s the human free will and the laws of nature that are in charge, not god.

(I deliberately refrain from discussing “free will” at this point. If there is no free will, then everything is due to the laws of nature, and we are back to the non-interventionist god — not the kind that people want.)

Chagall: Hour between Wolf and Dog 1938-43

Asher Susser: “Western societies see themselves as societies of individuals. The rights of the individual are at the core of political debate, guaranteed by the state. People organize politically as individuals.

[In the Middle East, you] belong to a group—that is, your family, your extended family, your tribe, and perhaps above all else, your religious denomination. So, you are first and foremost a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Christian—and some kind of Christian at that, either Maronite, or Greek Orthodox, or Greek Catholic; and these differences matter.

Why do we keep getting this wrong? Well, in the West, one unfortunate by-product of Edward Said’s influence is the unwillingness to recognize the otherness of the “Other.” . . . [W]hen [someone] from the U.S. and other Western states looks at the Middle East, he or she explains Middle Easterners not as Other, but as [just like] us! That’s why we got this whole story about Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring. It was a way of saying, “They’re just like we are!”

Westerners saw Facebook and Twitter, but didn’t see the Muslim Brotherhood. . . . And then the commentators were shocked when the Muslim Brotherhood walked all over everybody. But they were obviously going to walk all over everybody! The only people who are going to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from walking all over everybody is the military—not the secular liberals. The secular liberals, to kick the Muslim Brotherhood out of power in Egypt, had to use the military—nobody else could do it.”

Muslim praying in the street in India


The West, too, used to be a lot more “collectivist” in the past, and religion, understood chiefly as collective worship, played a greater role than it does now.

And rural areas, even in developed countries, are closer to the past in being more religious and more oriented toward group identity. The city-country rift is globalism versus nationalism on a local scale. And the American South is more embedded in the past than other regions.

Of course Evangelical Christianity is so bizarrely warped now that if Jesus ran against Trump, Jesus would lose. But that’s a different matter. Group identity versus individualism — this is the crux of it. The rest is details.

Still, now that I’ve mentioned evangelical Christianity, I am struck by certain similarities with Islam, which is also an apocalyptic religion. Humanity is not headed for progress; it’s headed for annihilation and the Last Judgment.

But mainstream Christianity is much more advanced on its road to becoming a secularized “cultural Christianity.” For instance, we rarely use the expression, “God willing” anymore. In Islam everything is the will of god, and the equivalent expression is used all the time. And there are religious regulations for every aspect of life. Compared to that, it’s easy to see even Christianity as part of the greater freedom that prevails in the West. 

I don’t really know how to interpret this photo. Does it show an act of impiety?


Selika Lazevski, a 19th century equestrian was photographed here by Felix Nadar in 1891 in Paris, France. She was an écuyère who performed haute école – which means she was an equestrian who rode high school dressage in French circuses in the 19th century.

“Selika Lazevski was an écuyère (horsewoman) who performed high level dressage. The écuyères rode side saddle in circuses and hippodromes, and were widely respected for their skills as horsewomen.”

Sometimes, when psychoanalysts begin treatment with a new patient, they quickly find themselves feeling that they can’t make sense of what is going on. The patient’s statements and behavior simply don’t add up, and the flurry of dissociated statements and actions can quickly begin to produce something like a disorienting fog.

Most seasoned clinicians will have learned that they shouldn’t attribute this confusion, which is typically accompanied by a distinct form of anxiety, to their lack of skill. Instead, adept clinicians take the experience itself and the accompanying anxiety as significant data, indicating that they are dealing with, if not psychosis in the strict diagnostic sense, at the very least something in the vicinity of psychotic-like phenomena.

Because psychotic individuals tend to find reality as a whole too painful to bear, they break with it globally, and construct an alternative, delusional, “magical” reality of their own. This alternate relation to reality, manifesting itself in the initial meetings with the patient, is at the root of the clinician’s confusion.

Just as disorientation and bewilderment tell analysts something significant about what they are experiencing in the clinical setting, so too our confusion and anxiety in the face of Trumpism can tell us something important about ours. I am suggesting, in other words, that Trumpism as a social experience can be understood as a psychotic-like phenomenon.
This is not a question of Donald Trump’s personal psychopathology, alarming as that question may be. The point is, rather, that Trumpism as a social-psychological phenomenon has aspects reminiscent of psychosis, in that it entails a systematic — and it seems likely intentional — attack on our relation to reality.

Much has been written about “post-truth” politics in the context of the recent presidential election, and rightly so, as Trump’s relationship with the truth is not the same old conservative legerdemain.

Anti-fact campaigns, such as the effort led by archconservatives like the Koch brothers to discredit scientific research on climate change, remained within the register of truth. They were forced to act as if facts and reality were still in place, even if only to subvert them. For example, when they attempted to undermine the findings of legitimate scientists, they often utilized rational arguments concerning certainty, probability and proof. The collective social experience of this propaganda may have led to greater ignorance about the science of climate change, but it didn’t substantially alter our experience of truth as such.

As opposed to the Soviet Union or contemporary North Korea, Surkov, as Peter Pomerantsev observed in The London Review of Books, does not seek to generate and maintain the regime’s power exclusively through the exercise of overt terror (though there is plenty of that). On the contrary, his “fusion of despotism and postmodernism” comprises “a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused,” creating “a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” To keep his opponents off-balanced and powerless, he might, for example, sponsor “nationalist skinheads one moment” and “human rights groups the next.” In a similar vein, Surkov could have provided the seating arrangements for the N.S.C., where Bannon, a right-wing white nationalist who has provided a platform for anti-Semites, sits on one side of Trump, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an orthodox Jew, sits on the other.

After observing Donald Trump for all these exhausting months, it is clear that, whether he is as calculating as a puppet master like Surkov or simply functioning on a showman’s intuition, the law of noncontradiction does not apply in his universe.

By continually contradicting himself and not seeming to care, Trump generates confusion in the members of the media and political opposition that has often rendered them ineffectual, especially in speaking to those outside the liberal base. They were slow to realize that he was playing by a different set of rules. This is why they, like Hillary Clinton before them, have had such difficulty gaining traction against him via appeals to facts and other cherished norms of liberal democracy. He has proved adept at deflecting well-intentioned fact-checking, regardless of how often it has caught him in a contradiction, and rational counterarguments, which can bounce off him like rubber. As long as Steve Bannon and his colleagues continue to destabilize our sense of reality, and their opponents fail to recognize how these techniques work, those who oppose him will continue to stumble.
In the psychiatric setting, it only becomes possible to treat a patient in the psychotic range of the diagnostic spectrum when an analyst does not focus on the “manifest content” — on what actually happens on the surface — but finds a way to address the underlying dynamics in order to work them through and establish, first in the analytic setting, and then hopefully in the patient’s life, a less compromised relation to reality.

On the hopeful side, there has recently been a robust and energetic attempt not only by members of the press, but also of the legal profession and by average citizens to call out and counter Trumpism’s attack on reality.

But on the less encouraging side, clinical experience teaches us that work with more disturbed patients can be time-consuming, exhausting and has been known to lead to burnout. The fear here is that if the 45th president can maintain this manic pace, he may wear down the resistance and Trump-exhaustion will set in, causing the disoriented experience of reality he has created to grow ever stronger and more insidious.


This is a tremendously important article. “Gas-lighting” is a loose term; to those who haven’t seen the movie, and that’s probably most of us, the phrase means little or anything. This article is based on the author’s clinical experience. Having witnessed a friend’s psychotic breakdown, I agree as to just how confusing the experience is — even after you know the person is mentally ill and should “know better” than to freak out when she starts the crazy talk. 

The same goes for dealing with a demented parent. Speaking from my personal experience, pure gibberish is easier to deal with. It’s much worse when the person is mostly lucid and is carrying on a rational conversation — and then suddenly inserts a piece of nonsense. That’s what throws you off balance. It’s terribly draining to deal with a person who does it, even if it's unintentional. If we suspect it's intentional, it's even more exhausting to try to defend our rationality, be it the simple knowledge that no, the microwave isn't watching. 


Men’s hairstyles back when America was great — I lean to the forward-combed booggie
Ah, the era when America was still industrializing rather than becoming de-industrialized . . .  Here is Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “America Today,” 1931


~ “Compare two people, one of whom has been crippled by an accident, the other by an early environmental history which makes him lazy and, when criticized, mean. Both cause great inconvenience to others, but one dies a martyr, the other a scoundrel.” ~ B.F. Skinner
It wouldn't surprise me if ultimately Skinner became acknowledged as a greater thinker than Freud.


~ “In THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, Steven Pinker... very carefully describes how language is rich in redundancy. We don't need to say half the things we do. We consistently say a great deal more than need requires.

[Here the author gives examples of text with the vowels left out in order to illustrate the text can still be read without the vowels. I have left that out as it is lengthy and most are familiar with that. ~ Gwyn Henry, to whom I owe this passage]

The natural human manner is voluble, assertive, open-mouthed, vowelly, and over-supplied with signals. That communicative generosity is a sign of humanity itself, a form of biophilia, the love of vitality itself. The ever-present but strictly unnecessary vowels are, as it turns out, symptoms of a much more general phenomenon. We surround ourselves with a thick meaning blanket, a pelt of significance. We don't spit sharp little pellets of pre-digested information at each other like sharp-beaked owls. We lounge together in the same meaning bath. Redundancy, an over supply of meaning, and a certain inefficiency are the defining qualities of a humane life.” ~ Adam Nicolson, “Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History” 

Look at that diving dinosaur! Photo: John Collins

"The Book of Revelation is war literature," Pagels explained. John of Patmos was a war refugee, writing sixty years after the death of Jesus and twenty years after 60,000 Roman troops crushed the Jewish rebellion in Judea and destroyed Jerusalem.
In the nightmarish visions of John’s prophecy, Rome is Babylon, the embodiment of monstrous power and decadence. That power was expressed by Rome as religious. John would have seen in nearby Ephesus massive propaganda sculptures depicting the contemporary emperors as gods slaughtering female slaves identified as Rome’s subject nations. And so in the prophecy the ascending violence reaches a crescendo of war in heaven. Finally, summarized Pagels, "Jesus judges the whole world; and all who have worshipped other gods, committed murder, magic, or illicit sexual acts are thrown down to be tormented forever in a lake of fire, while God’s faithful are invited to enter a new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven, where Christ and his people reign in triumph for 1000 years."

Just one among the dozens of revelations of the time (Ezra’s, Zostrianos’, Peter’s, a different John’s), the vision of John of Patmos became popular among the oppressed of Rome. Three centuries later, in 367CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria confirmed it as the concluding book in the Christian canon that became the New Testament.

As a tale of conflict where one side is wholly righteous and the other wholly evil, the Book of Revelation keeps being evoked century after century. Martin Luther declared the Pope to be the Whore of Babylon. Both sides of the American Civil War declared the opposing cause to be Bestial, though the North had the better music---"He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword." African-American slaves echoed John’s lament: "How long before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?"

But like many Christians through the years, Pagels wishes that John’s divisive vision had not become part of the Biblical canon. Among the better choices from that time, she quoted from the so-called "Secret Revelation of John": "Jesus says to John, ‘The souls of everyone will live in the pure light, because if you did not have God’s spirit, you could not even stand up.’

“The other revelations are universal, instead of being about the saved versus the damned.”
   ~ Stewart Brand

Dali: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946

Diego Rivera: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1947

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride" (you could say this is grandmother's wisdom against the magical thinking of "The Secret")



Wells and his colleagues suspect childbirth might even have been a relatively minor problem in our species — at least to begin with. There are very few newborn baby skeletons among the human remains from early hunter-gatherer groups, which might hint that death rates among newborns were relatively low.

This situation changed a few thousand years ago. People began farming, and newborn baby skeletons became a far more common feature of the archaeological record, at least in some places.

Wells and his colleagues suspect a shift to farming also led to developmental changes that made childbirth far more difficult. A rise in infant mortality at the dawn of farming might be due in part to a raised risk of death during childbirth.

There is one striking feature archaeologists have noticed when comparing the skeletons of early farmers with their hunter-gatherer ancestors. The farmers were noticeably shorter in stature, probably because their carbohydrate-rich diet was not particularly nutritious compared to the protein-rich hunter-gatherer diet.

This is a telling observation for those who study childbirth, says Wells, because there is evidence of a link between a woman's height and the size and shape of her pelvis. In general, the shorter a woman, the narrower her hips. In other words, the shift to farming almost certainly made childbirth more challenging.

On top of that, the carbohydrate-rich diets that became more common with farming can cause a developing foetus to grow larger and fatter. That makes the baby harder to deliver.
Combine these two factors and human childbirth – which might have been relatively easy for millions of years – suddenly became more difficult about 10,000 years ago.

Something rather like this "farming revolution effect" replays whenever human diets become poorly nutritious – particularly if those diets also contain a lot of carbohydrates and sugars, which encourage foetal growth.

"We can make a simple prediction that the nutritional status of mothers should be associated with a local prevalence of maternal mortality and difficulties with giving birth," says Wells. The statistics clearly follow such a pattern, suggesting that improving nutrition might be a fairly easy way to reduce maternal mortality.

[But that’s not the end of the story.] Fischer and Mitteroecker investigated whether there is any correlation between female head size and pelvis size. Head size is heritable, at least to some extent, so women would benefit during childbirth if those with larger heads also naturally had a wider pelvis.

The researchers' analysis of 99 skeletons suggested such a link does indeed exist. They concluded that a woman's head size and her pelvic dimensions must somehow be linked at the genetic level.

And there is another complication: women's bodies change as they get older.

The data suggest that a woman's pelvis takes on a shape more conducive to childbirth in her late teens — when she reaches peak fertility. It then stays that way until around her 40th birthday, when it then gradually changes shape to become less suitable for childbirth, ready for the menopause.

But many babies are now born by Caesarean section, an operation in which the baby is taken out of the mother's abdomen without ever entering the birth canal. Fischer and Mitteroecker suggested that, in societies where C-sections have become more common, foetuses can now grow "too large" and still have a reasonable chance of survival.

In theory, as a consequence the number of women giving birth to babies that are too big to fit through their pelvis might have risen by 10 or 20% in just a few decades, at least in some parts of the world. Or, to put it in cruder terms, people in these societies might be evolving to have larger babies.

For now this is only an idea and there is no hard evidence that it is really happening. But it is an intriguing thought.


Ending on beauty:

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring?

~ D.H. Lawrence, The Enkindled Spring

Sand verbena, Death Valley, March 2017


Sunday, March 19, 2017


Washington National Cathedral, March 14

True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

[the narrator kills the old man, dismembers his body, and buries it under the floor planks]

I took my visitors [three policemen] all over the house. I bade them search — search well. I led them, at length, to his [the dead man’s] chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: — It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness — until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears. No doubt I now grew very pale; — but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly — more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men — but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! here, here! — It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Edvard Munch: The Murderer, 1910


I have no doubt The Tell-Tale Heart influenced Dostoyevski, who knew and admired Poe’s work. The idea of the murderer’s guilty conscience driving him to confess may not have originated with Poe, but he presented it with wonderful imaginative force.

. . . Dostoevsky’s notice of 1861, in which he praises Poe’s “marvelous acumen and amazing realism” in the depiction of “inner states.” (It is interesting that this piece, published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Wremia five years before Crime and Punishment, stood as introduction to three stories by Poe, two of which—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat”—are accounts of murder, conscience, and confession.)

Poe by David Levine

The insanity of Poe’s narrator reminds me of having read, long ago, an account of a man who shot his neighbor because, as he told the police, “for twenty-five years, he’s been steadily getting on my nerves.”

Sooner or later we all experience a neighbor so annoying that a fantasy of homicide crosses our mind. Of course the sane person rejects the impulse. But sanity is built on sufficient contentment with life; the sum of the pleasures needs to outweigh all the petty and not-so-petty annoyances so that life appears to be worth living, and putting up with some nastiness is not such a huge matter. Then there is of course the restraint of morality, and the matter of penalties, such as life in prison. And even if we don’t get caught, masters like Poe and Dostoyevski remind us that the torments of a guilty conscience would be unendurable.

So why does murder happen at all? There are all kinds of reasons. What has stayed in my mind, though, is an article I can no longer find (apologies), one that stated that in the vast majority of cases the perpetrator regarded himself as a victim — the injured party who was only “seeking justice” (aka revenge; people say “justice,” but they mean “revenge”). And here we may ponder Dostoyevski’s statement that there are no bad men, only wretched ones — aside from outright psychopaths and other cases of abnormal brain function. No naturally evil sinners, only badly damaged human beings.


 Monet: Snow at Argenteil


And even wetter snow: Monet, Snow Effect at Limetz, 1886



1. Slogan ~ From "slua," meaning "crowd" (or "sluag," for "army"), and "gairm," meaning "call." "Slua" is pronounced "slew," which may be why we say "a whole slew of things" too.

2. Galore ~ From "go leor," which basically means "until many." Makes sense, right?

3. Hooligan ~ This one is less of a translation and more of a pejorative origin derived from stereotypical depictions of the Irish as rowdy drunken brawlers. See also: "paddy wagon," which is so named either because the Irish were stereotypically cops or because they were stereotypically getting arrested for being drunk and violent.

4. Smithereens ~ This literally means "little pieces," a combination of "smiodar" for "debris" and "ín," a common Irish suffix for "small" that has been Anglicized to "een." See also: "Colleen," which means "little cailín," or simply "a girl.”

5. Clan ~ From, uhh, well, "clann," which means "family."

6. Swanky ~ from "sócmhainní," which means "assets," or "somhaoineach" for "profitable." (And yes, the spelling looks strange, but it actually makes a lot of sense once you figure out all the different combinations of open vowel sounds.)

7. Whiskey ~ from "uisce beatha," which means "water of life." Yup.

8. Kibosh ~ Even I was under the impression that this was a Yiddish word. But it turns out it was likely derived from "caipin," or "cap," and "bháis," or death — literally "death cap," and the Irish name for a candle-snuffer. Judges also wore an chaip bháis when announcing their sentences.

So basically, when you "put the kibosh" on something, you're actually killing it. Yay?

9. Phony ~ This one's kind of complicated, but also really cool. It probably comes from "fáinne," an Irish word for a ring, and refers to a confidence scheme called a "Fawney Rig," which involves "accidentally" dropping a fake ring of value in front of a victim and then selling it to them for way more than it's actually worth.

10. Keening ~ to cry or wail, usually for the dead, and it's just a differently spelled (but similarly pronounced) version of the Irish word "caoineadh," which means the same.

The Irish language might be struggling to survive, but it's not dead yet. In fact, it's one of the oldest living languages in the world, as well as the first national language of the Republic of Ireland, which means that all government documents are written in Irish and English and that children study the language in school.

That being said, less than 2% of the population actually speaks the native tongue on a daily basis, and only 41% claim to speak it at all, even after years of schooling.


"Members of the British Conservative Party have been nicknamed Tories since the early 1800s. There is absolutely nothing satirical whatsoever to be said about the fact that it ultimately derives from tóraidhe, an old Irish word for an outlaw or a plunderer of stolen cash."


~ “Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe).

Proust, to his credit, spent too much time with snobby hostesses, lost his heart to pretty girls and boys, wryly registered all the small print of social climbing—and saw that the easy ways in which we separate the “trivial” from the “essential” are themselves part of our delusion. The most frivolous passing stranger can bring deep feelings to our surface, he notes, as even a great work of art (or great man) can seldom do. The most trifling thing — this is in part what the madeleine is about — can open up a universe.

The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind?

Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself — the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of À la recherche.

Every night, the narrator writes, descending into his second home, the subconscious, “we’re initiated into the mystery of extinction and resurrection,” travel into a different, parallel self and then back into the one we recognize, as if reborn.


Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.” ~


Or, as Nietzsche put it, as soon as we investigate anything in sufficient depth, an infinity opens itself. And that should keep us humble when it comes to any claims to knowing the truth.

Another parallel that comes to my mind is Sherlock Holmes, who examines the most trifling details — and that’s how he discovers the vital clues.

As for the nightly extinction and morning resurrection, I have often pondered this phenomenon. Without consciousness, during dreamless sleep, we essentially cease to exist — insofar as we can sense existing. Time ceases — we may wake up thinking it’s already morning, and be surprised to discover it’s only just past midnight.

You’d think that this nightly experience of sinking into nothingness would be enough to make people disbelieve in the afterlife — but the power of wishful thinking overcomes mere facts. It’s surprising that humanity ever developed science, or writers such as Proust, ruthless in the pursuit of the truth. But in some of us the voice of the intellect will not be still. As Dostoyevski said about Ivan Karamazov, “He doesn’t want a million rubles, but an answer to his questions.” 

Morpho butterfly and labradorite


~ “Islam ensnares every moment of a Muslim's life. How you eat, how you go to the bathroom, how you put on shoes, how you have sex. Every single aspect of your life is mapped out so that there is minimal opportunity to think. You are trained to just follow. Do as you're told. Don't ask why. Get in line with the rest of the ummah (community of Muslims). Like a school of fish; it is instinctual.

That's the way it is. That's the way the brainwashing goes. Like a soldier trained to take orders and react. Thinking is deadly. Questioning is punished.

This is much more true for women than it is for men. Under Islam, a woman's sense of agency is nonexistent. Her individuality is completely erased, or rather, never given an opportunity to flourish in the first place. Sometimes, like it was for me, this statement is both literal as well as figurative.

My entire being was dampened by a black shroud. Covered from head to toe, without even my eyes connecting with the outside world, I'd float around other humans almost like a ghost. I could see them, but they couldn't see me. I was invisible. My humanity was completely eradicated. I wasn't Yasmine. I was a faceless figure shrouded in black. My wants, needs, interests, desires, preferences, were never even considered — least of all by me. I didn't know that there was such thing as choice. I'd never made a decision. I just did as I was told.

I was miserable. But my misery also made me feel guilty. Why couldn't I move along with the other fish? Why did I yearn to escape their hold? Wasn't this the path to heaven? Any other direction was hell. Why wasn't I strong enough to fight the devil luring me to imagine a life where I could swim in different waters?

Islam is ingenious in its hold. Aspects of its tactics can be found in Mormonism, with Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses, but Islam is the only religion that combines all the different ensnaring elements into one, and then turns up the intensity tenfold.

Islam's hold on your body, mind, and spirit is such that almost 15 years after denouncing the religion, I'm still discovering and suffering from remnant conditioning of my mind.

I don't think I'll ever be truly free. I was only able to free my body. But I have not failed. My daughters are free. My daughters will never be able to relate to or understand any of this world. They will listen wide-eyed, unable to fathom that existence. And so, even if I have to take this indoctrination with me to the grave. I don't mind. I'm happy to take it with me 6 feet under, far away from my daughters. Where it can't hurt anyone else from my bloodline. They'll all be free to swim in any direction they choose.” ~

(source: Faisal Saeed Al Mutar)


I realize that someone may accuse me of Islamophobia . . . so be it. My intent is to arouse compassion -- and no, it won't do to say that we have sexism also in the West, and that Christianity too is patriarchal, and all such stuff. It won’t do to say, “But look, we have domestic violence too, we have rape, no Catholic women priests, and so on.” True. But what we have is 1; they have 10.

The power of this image (produced by Anthony Freda Studio) truly touched me.

As for Yasmine’s story: it confirms that with any repressive religion, recovery is a lifetime journey. 


The punishment for blasphemy should be left up to the imaginary deity who's offended. Let them deal with it in the imaginary afterlife. ~ Nick Rose

THE DEVIL’S CHESSBOARD: A joint biography of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, who led the United States into an unseen war that decisively shaped today's world


~ “During the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, two immensely powerful brothers led the United States into a series of foreign adventures whose effects are still shaking the world.

John Foster Dulles was secretary of state while his brother, Allen Dulles, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this book, Stephen Kinzer places their extraordinary lives against the background of American culture and history. He uses the framework of biography to ask: Why does the United States behave as it does in the world?

The Brothers explores hidden forces that shape the national psyche, from religious piety to Western movies―many of which are about a noble gunman who cleans up a lawless town by killing bad guys. This is how the Dulles brothers saw themselves, and how many Americans still see their country's role in the world.

Propelled by a quintessentially American set of fears and delusions, the Dulles brothers launched violent campaigns against foreign leaders they saw as threats to the United States. These campaigns helped push countries from Guatemala to the Congo into long spirals of violence, led the United States into the Vietnam War, and laid the foundation for decades of hostility between the United States and countries from Cuba to Iran.

The story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America. It illuminates and helps explain the modern history of the United States and the world.

~ “Some passages of The Devil’s Chessboard have a plaintive tone, a kind of lament about the irreparable harm the fanaticism of fighting the Cold War against Soviet Russia (and its alleged proxies all over the world) had on shaping a set of unaccountable secret institutions that have both distorted our politics and undermined the “democratic” principles for which the U.S. supposedly stands.

Secret CIA activities in the 1950s under Dulles’s watch included horrifying experiments in “de-patterning” and “mind control” involving LSD and hypnosis (often on unwitting subjects) to try to develop the means to “turn” Soviet agents (MKULTRA). Subsequently, Dulles led the CIA in its first experiments in “regime change” with the coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. It was Dulles’s CIA that played a key role in killing the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960, and setting up the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.

Dulles, who was by far the most influential director the CIA ever had, Talbot shows, was for decades at the center of a secret American foreign policy. The author clearly understands power and he knows the extremes to which America’s “intelligence community” was willing to go to “save” the country from the communist hordes.

While serving as a young Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative in Europe, Dulles participated in “Operation Sunshine” whereby any former Nazi who was either deemed a “gentleman” (meaning wealthy) or had any information or skills that might be useful to U.S. intelligence in the new Cold War against its former ally, the Soviet Union, could by whisked to safety far away from those pesky Nuremberg trials.

One disturbing revelation in The Devil’s Chessboard is Dulles’s willingness to use his expertise in spy craft and his intelligence connections (including hidden sources of money) to influence U.S. domestic politics as early as the 1952 elections. Back in 1948, unbeknownst to the Italian (and American) people, the CIA used laundered cash and secret intelligence assets in Italy to block electoral gains by communist and socialist candidates. This rigging of the 1948 Italian elections was seen as an intelligence triumph at the time and emboldened the CIA to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations.

The CIA threw a lot of laundered money around and bribed Iranian officials (as it had done with the Italian elections in ‘48), but added new tricks to its repertoire such as extortion, radio jamming, false flag operations, espionage, hit lists, kidnapping, and arming pro-Shah street gangs to achieve its aims in “Operation Ajax.” The coup d’état in Iran in August 1953 that toppled the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossedegh and installed Shah Reza Pahlavi (who ruled until 1979) was heralded as a bold and daring U.S. triumph in the Cold War. (Today, given the antagonism between Iran and the U.S. it can be seen as a sort of “original sin” of failed U.S. policies in the Middle East.)

The CIA’s role in the coup in Guatemala in 1954 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz (who Talbot likens to John F. Kennedy) also reveals the new operational capabilities of the CIA in manipulating the press:

“The agency’s disinformation campaign began immediately after Arbenz’s downfall,” Talbot writes, “with a stream of stories planted in the press - particularly in Latin America - alleging that he was a pawn of Moscow, that he was guilty of the wholesale butchery of political foes, that he had raided his impoverished country’s treasury, that he was sexually captivated by the man who was the leader of the Guatemalan Communist Party. None of it was true.” (p. 253)

Talbot’s retelling of many of the now well-known facts about the CIA’s role in the coups in Iran and Guatemala is cogent and alarming since many of the CIA’s assets and operatives who participated in “Operation Success” (the coup in Guatemala) resurfaced later as persons of interest in the Kennedy assassination: E. Howard Hunt, David Atlee Phillips, and David Morales. (p. 261) The CIA had a “disposal list” of fifty-eight key Guatemalan leaders at the time of the coup marked for assassination and even wrote a manual describing in detail how to go about doing it (which was made public in 1997).

The CIA under Dulles never bothered to tell President Kennedy about Lumumba’s murder (even though Dulles briefed the new president on January 26, 1961 about the situation in the Congo). President Kennedy had to hear the news second hand from his United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. (p. 387) Hence, from the start of the Kennedy Administration Dulles kept secrets from his new boss.

Talbot’s take on this well-known story about the CIA’s ill-fated attempt to topple Castro is fresh and engaging. He uncovers convincing evidence that Dulles and his top aides set up the Bay of Pigs to fail in order to force the young president’s hand in bombing the island and sending in the Marines. Surprising Dulles and other national security holdovers from the Eisenhower Administration was President Kennedy’s resolve to stand by his earlier warnings to them that there would be no direct U.S. air strikes and no Marines landing in Cuba. “They were sure I’d give into them,” Kennedy later told Dave Powers. “They couldn’t believe that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face. Well they had me figured all wrong.”

Indeed, they had “figured” JFK wrong because the President then fired Dulles, Bissell, and Cabell after their botching of the Bay of Pigs, which they had assured him would unfold in a similar fashion as the successful Guatemalan coup of 1954. But as Talbot points out later in the book, President Kennedy’s purge of the top echelon of the CIA had not gone far enough. He cites a letter to President Kennedy from W. Averell Harriman (who had been FDR’s Ambassador to Moscow and a veteran of Washington infighting), which refers to the CIA’s undermining Kennedy’s neutrality policies in Laos and Vietnam.

Dulles’s role in the official government whitewash of the Kennedy assassination cannot be overstated. He was so important in directing the aims and outcomes of the Warren Commission’s “investigation” into the killing of John F. Kennedy that it should be more correctly called the “Dulles Commission.”

Since President Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself murdered in the basement of the Dallas police building on November 24, 1963, there would be no trial. In its stead the nation was given a non-adversarial process of a presidential commission that runs counter to the norms of American jurisprudence, and which clearly had drawn the preordained conclusion that Oswald had “acted alone” before the first witness was ever called. 

One of the many questions that Talbot answers in this book is the curious phenomenon of a right-wing Republican, Allen Dulles, whose professional and personal connections exclusively consisted of wealthy Wall Street bankers and lawyers, spies and spooks (like James Jesus Angleton), and foreign policy elites tied to the Rockefellers and the white shoe law firm Sullivan and Cromwell — who President Kennedy fired after he sensed Dulles lied to him and could not be trusted — would find himself heading the commission charged with “investigating” the murder of a president that Dulles neither liked nor respected. 

Kennedy in Dublin, 1963
There were no Kennedy allies on the Warren Commission. Only Republicans and Southern Democrats. J. Edgar Hoover controlled the physical evidence in the case and Dulles was in the pivotal spot to guide the inquiries or witnesses away from any fingerprints of intelligence agencies in concocting Oswald’s “legend” or in the events in Dallas. Serious students of the Kennedy assassination, regardless of their views of the Warren Commission’s “findings,” must read The Devil’s Chessboard if for no other reason than to flesh out Allen Dulles’s role in guiding the public’s perception of the crime of the century.

To young people the Kennedy assassination isn’t a primordial childhood event that shaped their worldview like it is for the boomers. It’s far more remote, like Lincoln’s assassination, something that happened long ago with little direct relevance to their lives. Hence, young people today don’t see what the big deal is in contemplating the idea that elements that arose out of the same corrupt and morally bankrupt secret government that helped Nazis escape prosecution, brought down foreign democracies, or experimented with mind altering drugs on unwitting subjects, might not see any clear limits to their crusade to save the world from what they believed was an existential threat by turning their violent capabilities inward.

When I was in college President Ronald Reagan was still scaring the hell out of the country with lurid tales of communists attacking the United States from their safe havens in Cuba, Nicaragua, or even from the rural areas of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Nicaraguan “contras,” along with the Afghan mujahideen, Reagan called “freedom fighters.” Reagan’s Defense Department officials, such as T.K. Jones, spoke loosely about surviving an all-out nuclear war with the Russians. And Reagan authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prepare a host of new “civil defense” measures. With respect to elite attitudes toward nuclear war, the 1980s weren’t all that different from the 1950s: “Duck and Cover!”

What made Reagan’s first term all the more frightening was his administration’s thinking out loud about the “unthinkable” at a time when the United States was deploying Pershing II nuclear missiles and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to West Germany, bulking up and modernizing its B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers, and launching new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) systems, such as the M-X “Peace Keeper” missiles, the new D-9 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and a high-tech space-based anti-ballistic missile system (called the Strategic Defense Initiative).

Those days of nuclear brinkmanship and alarmism against the Soviets and the widely disseminated propaganda that farm workers from El Salvador were going to spread communism into south Texas are as remote to today’s college students as Prohibition was to the baby boomers.

Thankfully, students today don’t possess the knee-jerk attitude of their parents and grandparents toward looking at the guilt or innocence of Lee Harvey Oswald. “Millennials” have no problem contextualizing the Kennedy assassination inside the rabid anti-communism of a by-gone era. They can also Google in a minute more information than I could acquire in a week when I was an undergraduate concerning the history of the unchecked power of the CIA and the national security state.” ~


This is a very long excerpt, I know. In fact it’s almost the entire review. I was riveted by the material, and I'm still trying to digest this information. I’ll refrain from commenting — I don’t feel competent enough — except to say I always had the suspicion that Ruby’s shooting of Oswald was a ploy to silence Oswald forever — Ruby’s “cover story” about wishing to avenge Jackie Kennedy was pretty ridiculous. Yes, you shoot the assassin — just as Khrushchev made sure that Beria was dead, or else he might blab about the poisoning of Stalin, who was still, in the first years after his death, officially worshipped as a secular god, his mummy on display next to Lenin’s.

Of related interest:

~ “As Talbot sees it, New Deal liberalism, which stands as the apotheosis of 20th century American democracy, was gradually eclipsed by men highly placed in government who saw democracy “as an impediment to the smooth functioning of the corporate state.

That Allen Dulles exercised enormous power and abused that power in myriad ways; that he ordered assassinations of undesirables abroad; that his CIA destabilized foreign governments in the Third World based on grossly exaggerated assessments of Soviet subversion; that he integrated high-level Nazi intelligence agents into CIA and West German intelligence networks—all these allegations are clearly borne out by the facts presented here, and confirmed by the work of many other investigators.

[But] contrary to Talbot’s claims, JFK’s policies, foreign or domestic, simply did not pose a dire threat to “deep power” interests.

Still, one would be hard pressed to find a book that is better at evoking the strange and apocalyptic atmospherics of the early Cold War years in America, and the cast of characters that made the era what it was. One of the singular pleasures of reading The Devil’s Chessboard are the wry, closely observed character sketches that punctuate the narrative. John Foster Dulles “brought the gloom of a doomsday obsessed vicar to his job, with frequent sermons on Communist perfidy and his constant threats of nuclear annihilation.” Richard Nixon “may have suffered from a tortured psyche, but it made him acutely sensitive to the nuances of power. He had a Machiavellian brilliance for reading the chessboard and calculating the next series of moves to his advantage.”

And here is a thought-provoking video — arguably not an accurate portrayal of an immensely complex reality, but fascinating nevertheless:

“I hate a liar more than a thief. A thief merely steals your money; a liar steals your reality.
~ Anonymous


Re: the press is the “enemy of the people” — did 45 learn that phrase from Bannon, the self-named “Leninist”?

~ “I wish this pathetic, dim-witted excuse for a human being had lived in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Then, in a momentary, final glimmer of helpless illumination, he would know the meaning of that phrase, "enemy of the people," as he would be led, sobbing and slobbering, on gelatinous legs, to his execution, having been unloaded from the back of a covered truck at the edge of the city, along with thousands of others slotted to be shot in the back of their heads on a daily basis. He would know then, with utmost clarity, what it felt like, to have been branded an enemy of the people.” ~ M. Iossel


Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God,
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory (Isa. 61:5-6)

Of courses Isaiah means the future glory of Israel, but anyone who lives in California will immediately think of Hispanic farm workers. And it could certainly be argued that America has been eating the wealth of nations.

Ah, that’s because America is the real Promised Land, some believers may say. But the part about being “priests of the Lord” applies neither to Americans nor to the citizens of modern Israel. Jews are the most secular ethnic group in the US. Israel is a secular state, and no one perceives its citizens as a priestly class, with foreigners doing non-priestly work, especially in agriculture — in Isaiah’s time, nothing was as important as agriculture, which was also brutal hard labor.

Isaiah softens his visions of the servitude of foreigners by saying that if they accept the Jewish law and don’t profane the Sabbath, they too will be allowed to make “burnt offerings and sacrifices” on Yahweh’s altar.

A really big offering was not a lamb but a bullock. An adult bull would presumably be even more impressive, but is not quite as easy to slaughter, and the huge carcass would be a mess. Still, one way or another, the altars were supposed to flow with blood. And this was a major prophet’s vision of the ideal world.

Some earlier verses specify which nations in particular will offer their wealth, including slaves, to the future Israel:

Thus says the Lord:
“The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia,
and the Sabeans, men of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours,
they shall follow you;
they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.” (Isa. 45:14)

This was par for the times, and I don’t hold it against the prophet that he conceived glory according to what glory meant when he was alive. Still, to come face to face with how different the world was then can be unnerving.

Isaiah probably never traveled very far; his world was tiny by our modern standards. For him there was no question as to which nation “shall eat the wealth of [other] nations.”

I read the bible only in adulthood, and was completely startled by the archaic character of it. My religion classes were very selective and the nuns and priests tried hard to present the stories in a way that would make some sense in the modern world. The actual text was a shock.

Raphael: Isaiah, 1512

"I cannot believe that any religion has been revealed to Man by God. Because a revealed religion would be perfect, but no known religion is perfect; and because history and science show us that known religions have not been revealed but have been evolved from other traditions." ~ Robert Blatchford, writer, journalist, and freethinker in God and My Neighbor (1903)


To say that no religion is perfect is such an understatement . . . But it's fascinating to see the way each religion contains tons of borrowings from all over. I guess there was no notion of plagiarism in religious matters. It was precisely seeing the similarities between various mythologies that led me to conclude that Judeo-Christianity was simply another mythology, collected from all over.

To me it's nothing short of astonishing that an adult can dismiss Zeus, Wotan, Santa Claus, the fairies, the little people, Ganesha, etc as mythology, but claim that HIS god is not mythical but the one and only true deity in the universe.

The statement that religions have evolved earlier religions reminds me of Nietzsche’s statement that it’s no longer necessary to ask if god exists; it’s enough to to trace the way the concept of god has evolved. Now this evolution proceeds at a more rapid pace. What used to take centuries now takes decades. What used to be unsayable just 30 years ago is now commonly stated — first generally by comedians, it seems, our new sages. 

Photo: Edward Byrne

Brian Wansink and his grad students had planned to dump Wheat Thins and M&M's into large Ziploc bags, but by mistake they also brought some tiny, snack-sized ones. Since there weren't enough large bags to go around, some moviegoers got four small ones instead.

Something surprising happened: Most people who received the four small bags finished only one or two. In a follow-up questionnaire, Wansink asked the participants how much more they would pay for snacks that came in lots of small packages instead of one big one. A majority said they'd spend 20 percent more.

In the snack food aisle of a local supermarket, Wansink stops in front of the chips to tell me about a recent study he did with cans of Pringles. At intervals of either 7 or 14 chips (it didn't matter much which), his team inserted a Pringle dyed with red food coloring. Lab subjects who got these subtle reminders consumed 50 percent fewer chips on average than control snackers who got regular Pringles.

Outside the boundaries of the lab, Wansink did take on one major private client: McDonald's. In 2008, he'd independently funded a study on Happy Meals, spending three weeks watching kids dine. He found that it didn't matter much what McDonald's put in the meal. Kids mainly cared about the toy—in fact, most stopped eating once they'd unwrapped it. Three years later, McDonald's hired Wansink to determine whether some changes it had made to Happy Meals—ditching the caramel sauce that accompanied the apple slices and promoting milk instead of soda—had actually prompted kids to eat more nutritious food at its restaurants. (Wansink found that they had.) "What makes Happy Meals happy and fun is not the food, it's the atmosphere and the toys," he says. "McDonald's wins because parents feel less guilty about taking their kids there.”

Many parents won't be surprised to learn that Wansink found children to be exquisitely sensitive about food presentation. One of his studies, in 2011, determined that serving fruit in colorful bowls instead of metal trays more than doubled fruit consumption at school. In another, from 2013, he found that schools that switched from whole to sliced apples saw 48 percent fewer apples wasted and a 73 percent increase in students eating more than half of their apples. It also turned out that giving vegetables fun names—like "X-Ray-Vision Carrots" or "Silly Dilly Green Beans"—persuaded kids to eat 35 percent more veggies.

So far, some 17,000 schools have used the Smarter Lunchrooms training. Many report success. Jessica Shelly, director of food services for Cincinnati's public schools, implemented a few simple changes, such as placing the plain milk before the flavored milk in the line, changing food names, and adding a toppings station. "It's so awesome to see a student who went over to the salad bar to put some cumin on their chicken soft taco also end up adding some red pepper strips and broccoli florets to their plate," Shelly told me via email. Lunch attendance increased, and her once-struggling program climbed out of the red. In 2013, it turned a $2.7 million profit.

 He tells me about a study he did with Birds Eye on how to get people to eat more frozen vegetables. Two sets of participants were told different versions of a story about a woman named Valerie. In the first one, she has a busy day, and when she gets home she serves her family a dinner of pasta, warmed-up leftover chicken, bread, and green beans from the freezer. The second version is exactly the same—minus the green beans.

When the researchers then asked study participants to describe Valerie, they were shocked at the difference in the responses. "People will rate Valerie when she uses beans as, 'Oh, she's a good mother, she is stressed out, but you can see that she cares for her family; she's really a good cook,'" Wansink says. "If you don't have the beans, people are like, 'Oh my God, this lazy excuse for a woman. What is she doing? It's all about herself; she is so self-centered.’”


His book about using smaller plates, smaller packages of snacks etc was a NY Times bestseller ten years ago. But in spite of what Wansink says, the type of food also seems to affect how much we eat. I first noticed it with salmon, which is particularly rich in protein and the good omega-3 fats -- I could hardly ever manage to finish a standard portion. This more or less goes for all protein-rich foods, but salmon is the most dramatic example. But give me pasta, and I turn into an eating machine. Whole beans, green apples -- I have no trouble stopping at a "small portion." But make it some kind of mash, like refried beans or a fruit smoothie, and again I become an eating machine. Some types of food send a STOP signal to the brain, and others apparently don't.

In addition, it’s well-known that people will eat more of the food they find tasty. Thus, whole-grain pasta, which is not good-tasting, has never made me eat more than enough just to satisfy hunger. Fortunately I don’t have a sweet-tooth, so I find most desserts cloying, but I’ve seen people eat a large bowl of ice-cream or a thick slab of cheesecake (sugar-fat combinations are especially fattening) right after a large main meal. 

ending on beauty

A girl sleeps as if
she were in someone’s dream;
a woman sleeps as if
tomorrow a war will begin;
an old woman sleeps as if
it were enough to feign being dead,
hoping death will pass her by
on the far outskirts of sleep.

~ Vera Pavlova, tr Steven Seymour

Picasso: Sleeping Woman, 1931