Why “Uptime”?

  1.  There is a unix/linux command which reports how much time has elapsed since the OS was last booted.  That is, how long it’s been continuously running.  That command is called . . . uptime.
  2.  Sometimes I feel “up” and sometimes I feel “down”.  The former state I sometimes refer to as my . . . uptime.
  3.  In a letter to one of the early Christian churches, Saint Paul described being mystically caught up to heaven.  I wonder whether he might refer to that as his . . . uptime.
  4.  Priapic tumescence = uptime.
  5.  Waking (as opposed to sleeping), by analogy with #1, can quite reasonably be thought of as . . .  uptime.

Have a nice day.

The Great Gatsbys

Driving back from Panera’s, Rosemarie and I fell to talking about Gatsby. I’ve never read the novel – at least, all the way through – but within the past several months we’d watched both the Redford and the DiCaprio movie versions.

Rosemarie described the reaction of a friend of ours.  “I don’t understand it,” she said, “she loves Gatsby more than any other movie ever.”

“And some people praise it for presenting a faithful picture of that segment of American society in the twenties,” I said.  “That might be appropriate praise of a history book, or of a sociological study, but for a novel I think that’s pretty dim praise.”

“Well, even allowing for that,” said R, “I thought the Redford film was way better than the DiCaprio version.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And it wasn’t just Redford versus DiCaprio.  Remember how you exclaimed about Mia Farrow?  And I did too?”

“Un-huh,” said R.  “Who was Daisy in the DiCaprio version?  I can’t remember her name.”

“Neither can I.”

“Well, anyway, we don’t like any of the people in the story, do we?”

“Except Nick who’s telling it to us.”

“I’m not even sure about him.  Look, why is he telling us the story at all? He admires Gatsby for being able to hope in a supposedly hopeless situation.  And he wants us, I suppose, to understand what he finds admirable about this.  But, given the circumstances in which he exercises it, I don’t find anything admirable in Gatsby’s hope.  Gatsby exemplifies that old saw about repeating the same actions in the hope of a different outcome; he believes with all his heart that he can restart his romance with Daisy from scratch and make it come out differently. Gatsby faces the same lesson as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

“But Nick finds this admirable.  His moral outrage is directed against Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  I share that outrage.  They deserve it richly.”

“Ok, I’m with you,” says R, “they’re scum.  Go on.”

We passed the old quarry on Grove Street.  For ten years, every time we drove that route, I had promised myself I’d stop with the camera and get what I could out of images of the old buildings, the rock-crushers and their conveyor belts, the rotted wooden offices, the heaps of sorted gravel.  Two months ago operations had ceased, the buildings demolished, the machinery silenced.  The camera was now useless.

Thinking of this, I had fallen silent.  “You’re not sure about Nick,” said R, as a reminder.

“Oh, yeah.  I’m not sure.  I guess I’d want to sit down and have a long talk with him.”

“Summon him up from literary limbo?”

“Something like that.  From what I can tell, he admires Gatsby for some qualities that simply aren’t actually admirable.”

“And these are…?”

“I said that already: for hoping – no, imagining – that he could re-enact with Daisy the whole sequence of events from four or five years ago, and produce a different outcome.”

“Well, but come on, that’s not the way it looks to me at all.  Look, I think Nick is judging the Buchanans’ use of their wealth compared to Gatsby’s.  Isn’t Nick just pointing out that Gatsby at least had a recognizably human motive for achieving his wealth, and for the uses to which he was putting it, while the Buchanans had none at all?”

I had to think about that, and did for a minute.

“Um, maybe so.  But that’s pretty thin ground…” I paused again; R had just opened her mouth to say something when I continued: “…actually I don’t think that even reaches the status of a moral judgement.  It’s more like what I’d call a vaguely psychological estimate of somebody’s well-being.”

“You mean like Gatsby had goals while the Buchanans had none?”

“Something like that.  Anyway, if that’s what Nick admires, Nick is almost as rootless as the Buchanans, isn’t he?”

Rosemarie chuckled, evilly.  “Now I can just imagine someone commenting like who are you to judge Nick?

“Oh, come on.  You know damn well I wouldn’t even bother to respond to a remark like that.  I’m identifying the questions I’d have if I could have a talk with Nick.  I’d want to dig deep into his state of mind at the end of the story.  What I’m saying now – which our hypothetical commenter construes as my, um, condemnation of Nick – is nothing more than the starting point for an imaginary conversation.

“I can easily imagine that conversation – and my subsequent sense of where Nick is at morally – taking any one of several different paths.  And since Nick can’t be here, I can’t possibly have a final position.

“Your proposed commenter is jumping the gun.”

That was weeks ago.  I still don’t like the story; I can’t muster any compassion for Gatsby himself, the Buchanans are repulsive, and Nick is a sentimental fool.

I suppose I should be able to say more than that.  I can’t for the life of me make any sense out of the notion that The Great Gatsby is a great novel.

I’ll be sure to let you know if I change my mind.

A Quote From John MacMurray

About twenty years ago I, um, lost my faith.  A lot of what I had believed up till then simply evaporated.

It didn’t even leave a residue.

I have been, ever since, an unbeliever.  I don’t believe psychiatry is science.

Psychology is most likely not a science either.  That could depend on how we define it; I might come back to that before this post is over.

It was a text from John Macmurray that pulled the rug out from under my convictions.  I was reading Persons In Relation, his Gifford lectures from 1954.  Sharply distinguishing the two realms of personal and scientific knowledge, he wrote — with razor-sharp sarcasm —  that “…our objective or scientific knowledge of man is such knowledge of one another as we can obtain without entering into personal relation.”

Poof.  The bubble popped.

In that single moment, an entire closetful of intellectual reservations that had been accumulating over the years blew open and disgorged itself all over my mind.  (That scene in Return of the King where Aragorn, having extracted an oath from the dead, is almost buried in skulls… .)

Experimental conclusions only expressible as probabilities?  Check.  Theoretical entities only dubiously related to anything observable?  Check.  Prohibitions against individual narratives as “anecdotal”?  Check.  Inability to arrive at stable theoretical foundations for even the most basic of observations?  Check.  Prohibition against knowledge by introspection?  Check.

The list goes on and on and on and on and on.

I thought about everything I had absorbed of human nature since I was born, and the sources from which I had learned it: from my own reflections on my family, friends, enemies, favorite stories and novels and comics, movies, and just plain daily news; and above all from my own adventures in exploring my own humanity.

By the definition of scientific objectivity, none of this could count towards knowledge of human nature.  And that’s just silly.

I’ve been asking myself, ever since, how could we ever, here in Western intellectual history,  have arrived at such a stupid conviction.

  • What are we studying when we study psychology?
  • How deeply may one person know another?
  • What can we know about humankind in general that is different — intrinsically — from knowing individual persons?

I’ll be coming back to these topics in upcoming posts.  More than once.

Clear and Distinct Ideas

The phrase comes from Descartes, somewhere in the Meditations on First Philosophy.  (I’m not going to look up the exact citation — you can google for it.)

Some ideas, some ways of talking about ideas, try to follow this path of “Clear and Distinct”.  Some don’t.  Some ideas are intrinsically unsuited for a clear and distinct context.  Others can’t really be used outside of such a context.

Obvious instances of clear and distinct are the stipulative definitions you find in geometry, math, and logic textbooks and online tutorials.  In any of these disciplines, the first step for a beginner is to understand that points, lines, polygons, circles, and so on, have only the properties we define them to have.  That’s “clear and distinct.”

A Cartesian clear and distinct idea has — I always think of the matter this way — sharp edges.

Most of the notions of which our everyday colloquial speech is constituted do not have sharp edges.  Not at all.  They are not clear and distinct in Descartes’ sense.  This is not a defect; there are good reasons why everyday speech uses bendy, fuzzy, blurry-edged words and phrases.

One of those reasons is that in ordinary conversation, people are often simply expressing, sharing, or responding to, some state of mind.  Such matters, and the idioms by which we refer to them, are simply not amenable to sharp-edged definition.

For example:

  • “how are you feeling now that it’s over?
  • “Your friends are telling me I shouldn’t let you waste your time on it.”
  • “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?”
  • “Those conservative wingnuts are going to destroy the country.”

Please note: I am NOT saying that these can’t have clear meanings.  They can; but the clarity, when it appears, is supplied by non-verbal context.

Picture any of the first three expressions above (the fourth one differs from those in some important ways), being uttered in a one-on-one intimate exchange between two persons who know each other well.  Well enough so that they understand each other in the presence of statements and questions such as these.  It is that silent context that defines the ideas involved here.

The domain of human speech represented here is at the opposite pole of a conceptual spectrum from the Cartesian clear and distinct ideas.  In this realm,

  • there are only ostensive definitions, not verbal, conceptual, stipulative ones
  • clear and distinct are negotiable attributes.  They are unequivocally present only by mutual agreement between two or more persons.  One person alone cannot judge the issue.

In very general terms, this is the realm of the humanities, the liberal arts, religion, drama, intimate personal relations.

This is, mostly, where I’ll be spending my time and effort on UPTIME.

It is possible, in this realm, to think and speak with clarity and distinctness.  But not by imitating Descartes.  The philosopher John MacMurray talked about this in his Gifford Lectures The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation.  Those have had a big impact on me; I’ll describe that in another post soon.



Stories From My Childhood

I taught myself to read at four or five.  The  book was called, I think, “Henry the Helicopter”; there’s an image in memory of calling out “Mom, what’s this word: ‘T H E’?” from my upstairs bedroom in the house we moved out of before I was six.

By the time I was eight, many more books and stories had entered my experience.  Three in particular stand out; I read each one many times, and have never forgotten them.

Each of those three started something.  Each one set me on a path that has continued over the intervening sixty+plus years.  I’d even say that each one generated a new version of myself; all three of which have lived together ever since, sharing my thoughts, my spirit, my sensibilities.

The first one was Dickon Among the Indians.  It started me on a lifelong absorption in tribes, cultures, religions and their stories and their agents.  I’ll say more about that later.

The second one was Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress.  This was crude science fiction.  Four years later, when I encountered the real thing in writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Arthur Clarke, they felt familiar.   For me, at the time, SJFF was my first thrilling adventure story, a Star Wars for the late 40’s.

The third one was Pilgrim’s Progress.  The path that this set me on eventually became philosophy and literature.  Of course, the religious concepts were familiar to me, even at eight; but the story seemed a little odd.

I read it with curiosity and bewilderment.  I had the vocabulary (or acquired it on the fly, from context), the bare facility with reading, and plenty of imagination.  But I had only eight years experience of being human.

We were not well-to-do.  We lived on forty-four acres at the dead end of what, three miles to the west, was the main street of the town.  Our nearest neighbor was a little over half a mile away.  There were my parents and us five siblings, I being the middle.  Grandma, in decline, had come to live with us a couple of years earlier, and would move in another year to a rest home in Grand Rapids.

My mother’s father had been a pastor — we referred to them as “domine” — of the Dutch Reformed Church.  I knew him only through the library of books we inherited after his death, in 1917, of influenza.  These included some large sets: I remember two or three dozen volumes of 19th-century poets, a dozen of European history, a six-volume set of myths and legends from Greece and Rome.

The Pilgrim’s Progress must have come to us from him, the Reverend Meengs.  It was a late 19th-century edition, with many illustrations which had evidently been collected from a variety of earlier printings and publishers.  They were a wildly diverse set; I wasted a lot of effort trying to reconcile discrepancies in their presentation of Christian, his companions, and the geography of his journey.

Well, what, really, did I absorb from John Bunyan?  Surprisingly, not much in the way of religion.  Which brings us back to DAI .

Dickon Among the Indians was fire-damaged: the dust jacket was missing, and the covers were warped, the spine discolored.  My brother Phil, seven years older than I, had bought it at a flea market.  (He was also my source for Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress.)

DAI was a window into another kind of life, another way of living, speaking, learning, and even worshipping.

It’s been said that to really know one’s own native language, one has to acquire a second one.  That’s what Dickon did for me: I understood, reading it, that the religion of my family and of the surrounding community — its services, offices, institutions, and creeds — constituted a vocabulary of conventions  for addressing whatever in human experience was divine.  And I came to understand that the Delaware Indians Dickon lived among in the book used another set of such idioms.

Of course I could not have said this at the time.  I simply enjoyed being with Dickon, among the Indians.  But the position I’m articulating here was pretty well established in my thinking by the time I reached high school.  And all of that had started with my reflecting on Dickon Among the Indians.

True Names

Wizards, in the world of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, know the true names of things.  And of the powers that are in the world.  And sometimes of each other, or of the persons they deal with.

The true speech is primordial; in that language it is impossible for a wizard to lie.  Dragons can lie, however, even in the true speech; it is their native language.

Do we have anything analogous to this in our world?

Maybe.  Surely, for example, a toddler’s first language is like this.  His speech is a near-miraculous power over things; each new word, all by itself, is an incantation, a spell that creates a new thing in the world.

Roy Rappaport, in the introductory chapter of Ritual, Religion, and the Making of Humanity, noted that our acquisition of language, both as individuals and as a species, furnishes us with two important powers:

  • lying
  • imagining alternatives to what is

But before a child achieves either of those, there is perhaps a brief time in which all speech is the true speech of Earthsea: words make things exist, parents enact things into existence by the power of their voice alone,

This is the magical time, before one learns falsehood.

Remnants of true speech are left to some among us, I think.  Those remnants cannot be written down.  There is no dictionary.  There are only ostensive definitions.

Denise Levertov’s poem The Elves comes to mind.  It has bound Rosemarie and I together from the beginning, forty-six years ago.



Well, let’s get started then.  These are my interests:

  • philosophy
  • religions
  • music
  • literature
  • go
  • software engineering

In philosophy, I put the highest value on clarity of thinking and writing.  My heroes, in the past century, have been Wittgenstein, J.L.Austin, Charles Taylor, John Macmurray, Roy Rapaport, and George Carlin.   I’m not professionally active.  But I will present some essays in this blog.

Philosophy is a discipline for the mind; it is a joint — and mutually challenging — effort of finding true things.  My deepest conviction is that some experience of this practice is every human being’s native birthright.

My religion is Christianity.  I’ve read in other religions, and absorbed some ideas from them; but I’ve never made any of them the center of my religious practice.  My childhood religious training was in Christianity; converting to some other religion now, sixty years later, would effectively chop my life into two parts, and that would be intolerable.  It’s more straightforward to simply absorb new insights, as they come along, into my spiritual perspective, and abstain from modifying the basic vocabulary in which I express myself.

I worship at a small Episcopal parish nearby.  I’ve been there since 1995; sang in the choir until a couple of years ago, been a lector (scripture reader at services) right up to the present, led discussion forums on interesting topics from the history of our religion.

I have no sympathy for the public utterances of fundamentalist evangelicals on matters of politics, social mores, or the physical and biological sciences.  Their errors, in those domains, are too numerous to list here.

On the other hand, the popular atheism of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and the like, goes right past me; I can’t recognize my own worship, or my own god, or my own religion, in any of their descriptions.
The religion I follow is intensely and irrevocably personal.  It attends to persons and to a personal god; it knows nothing of human institutions, even religious ones such as churches, parishes, denominations, or conventions.  (These may be composed of profoundly holy persons, but that does not endow the institutions themselves with any haloes.  Religious institutions are artifacts in and of human culture; no such organization can have, or represent, or engage in, any sort of spiritual life.)

The religion I follow does not convey, or consist of, impersonal theories about the nature of the world.  It consists primarily of things that I do, and a battery of standards by which I steer myself, and a provocative vision of how persons can best relate to each other, and a deeply ingrained communal memorial to the man this religion is named for.

In music, I have one hero: J.S.Bach overwhelmed my spirit sixty years ago, and no other musician has ever displaced him.  I do accept and honor a few lesser gods: Beethoven, at an entirely opposite spiritual pole from Bach, and Ravi Shankar, for bringing me music from wholly outside my native traditions.

What about literature?   Hm . . . I read nonstop  until I was around forty — taking time off only to become a husband and then a father.  My admiration for the work of Ursula Le Guin is, well, unbounded.

I have a small output of poetry — maybe fifty poems in that many years.  For the past five years I have led a local workshop in poetry: reading it and writing it.

Finally, go.  (This is the board game — black and white stones on a 19×19 grid — that arose in China at least three thousand years ago and came to Europe and the Americas only in the 19th century.)  I’ve played on DGS since 2003, currently at 10kyu.

That’ll have to do for now, I guess.  Future postings will expand on each of these topics.  In the meantime, we will pass the time speculating about some recent advances in neuroscience, the spiritual discipline of playing go, how philosophy and common sense are profoundly interconnected, and the mind of J.S.Bach.