A plug for the Quadrant Gallery

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I have a couple of nice old tea spoons in my jar.  They belonged to my last aunt.  When I visited my mother after my aunt’s death I found that the spoons had been left in the garage, and were beginning to turn green.  I claimed them and added them to my jar of tea spoons.  The rest are plain tea spoons, giving these two pride of place.  They would not attract undue attention from a trader in antiques, still they hold sentimental value for me as a link to the passing generation.

One of the two spoons has an ivory handle.  I had noticed that it was coming loose.  Eventually it separated completely.  It moved from the jar of spoons to sitting on the shelf in separate pieces.  I thought about getting it fixed.  I work away from town and it would take special arrangements to visit some one who could repair it.  Then I nearly lost a piece, the band that joins the ivory handle to the stem of silver bowl of the spoon itself.  All pieces are necessary.

It occured to me that the Director of the Archives and Library where I work also runs a gallery in town, the Quadrant Gallery in the Bracken Court.  It was an easy visit from my flat to visit them on Moray Place late on a Saturday morning.  I left the spoon with them.  I was quite delighted this afternoon just before I was about to go home the Director came into the Archives office to return my restored tea spoon to me.  The stem of the handle had been re-bored and the separate parts of the spoon joined back together.  The bowl of the spoon has been cleaned so it shines.  It is restored as well as I wanted.  I carried it home carefully in my pocket.  Now it can go back to the spoon-jar.  I’m chuffed.  The result of this job has been excellent service.

Quadrant Gallery

Fluke of Nature

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And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on; and so did I

Some local sectarians left a tract on the steps of Manono House last year.  I flicked through it a couple of times before leaving on the front porch’s pew.  One page caught my eye.  To paraphrase it was about the whale’s fluke and how it is so beautifully adapted to it environment that engineers study it to learn about hydro-dynamics.  Therefore there must be an intelligent designer behind creation.  This can’t have happened by itself.

Laying aside the arguments for and against intelligent design I was struck by a thought that I would be tempted to ask a helpful door-knocking evangelist one day: What is your sect’s doctrine on whaling?

Think about it.  If a missionary’s sect does not actively oppose whaling then they are complicit in destroying evidence for the Creator.

Imagine the scene on the Last Day when Jesus comes back and he says, “Hey, shouldn’t there more whales and dolphins in the oceans than that?  I spent a good hour on the first wet Thursday afternoon of creation week designing those.  They were a cool design!”  There may be some re-thinking on who’s a sheep and who’s a goat after he says that.

Instead we have become comfortable in a technological world.  Invented by human hands and science; not reliant on a sectarian god.  It’s comfortable, and the cost is hidden from us that is our own consumption of the world’s resources.  We turn a blind eye to the sin that undergirds our society.

Catching Up On Reading

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January comes with a lot of down time.  It’s before things begin again.  The diversions for which I look begin later.  I’ve had time to finish off books I’ve borrowed from the library the last few weeks.

I’ve finished The Neighborhood Project by David Sloan Wilson.  I have Rav Stephen “Steg” Belsky for bringing this book to my attention.  My gratitude to him.  A book about the evolutionary studies of a city and its neighbourhoods was brought to my attention by a rabbi from Michigan.  Yes, really.  There must be a story behind that.  The book feels to me like a memoir rather than a manifesto.  It doesn’t provide a guide to making changes to a city.  The research that Wilson is doing is continuing.  The book established how he has got to the point of studying Binghamton, New York.  The results of this study are harder to quantify.

I will indulge in one last quote:

Now that I am trying to make a difference in my city of Binghamton, I find myself working with religious leaders and believer all the time.  Every audience I address includes churchgoers, and many of the meetings take place on church premises.  We do better than tolerate one another’s differences.  We have a shared interest in foresting community that makes us genuine allies.  Most religious believers are not threatened by science and are among the first to capitalize on technology.  When I portray evolutionary science as a valuable tool kit for making the world a better place, they are eager to use the tools as they are to use the Internet.  For my part, I regard them as kindred spirits to the extent that we share the same objectives, without insisting that they embrace my commitment to methodological naturalism. They are welcome to believe whatever they like, as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others.

The Neighborhood Project by David Sloan Wilson (2011) p. 330-331

Wilson makes this statement in the context of a critique of the New Atheism movement.  His criticism is that the New Atheists believe that by getting rid of religion irrationality will evaporate from society.  I suppose that this is a rationalistic dialectic analogous  to the Marxist socialist dialectic.  It rejects that irrational behaviour is systemic to human culture (and probably among other animals as well).  I imagine that the New Atheists risk becoming the new authoritarianism.  I’m happy to be committed to being one voice for a world-view in a society of diverse voices, and diverse world-views.  I imagine Wilson feels the same, otherwise he would not have committed himself to his criticism in publication.

As well as The Neighborhood Project, my recent reading has been Neptune’s Brood by the science fiction writer Charles Stross, and Cold Days by the fantasy writer Jim Butcher.  Bear with me.  Thinking about the three books I found myself thinking that there was a contrast in how the three authors perceive institutions.  Wilson interacts with institutions like neighbourhood churches and other community groups to create a model of his city.  Institutions are composed of people.  This is a Good Thing.

In the novels institutions are more monolithic.  The most powerful people, the leaders of institutions, in the stories direct what will happen.  The other people in the institutions are the followers, less powerful.  They are mooks, to be directed about and disposed equally by more powerful characters and the forces of narrative.  The institutions conspire to disguise the story that protagonists must uncover and reveal as the stories unfold.  In both cases the novels end in situations that are potentially world-changing for future story-telling.  The institutions are impersonal.  This is a Bad Thing.

In Real Life, ordinary people matter because individuals affect the causality of other lives and communities.  In the Land of Fiction, less so?

The World with Us

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Every time someone builds a dream home in the country and landscapes with plants purchased from a big-box store, they’re carrying the newest wave of foreign invades into our so-called natural environments.  In one clever study performed in Germany, plant seeds were collected in one-way highway tunnels in wich the traffic were either leaving or entering the city of Berlin.  The seeds were being carried on the surfaces of the vehicles, and some blew off and fell into the traps as the vehicles were passing through the tunnels.  More seeds were leaving the city of Berlin than entering.  The city had become a net exporter of seeds, especially the seeds of introduced species.

We’re not at the forefront of the movement to welcome nature back into our cities.  I’m happy to acknowledge the outstanding work taking place elsewhere.  We need to do what is manifestly good for us.  Even that is not easy.  It can still be accomplished by wisely managing the cultural evolutionary process.  The world with us can be a garden of Eden, as soon as we decide to end our self-imposed exile.

David Sloan Wilson, The Neighborhood Project (2011) pp 263, 271

We Are Now Entering the Noosphere


Our closest living relatives — chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utans, and gibbons — are extremely smart, but their particular form of intelligence is predicated on the fact that they can’t necessarily trust their neighbours.  Male chimps cooperate to hund for food or patrol their territory, but they also are obsessed with achieving social dominance within their group.  Female chimps also compete with one another to monopolise the best resources for themselves and their kin within the group.  A baby chimp can’t leave its mother to play with the other chimps; it might get beaten up or killed.

Modern human social life can get this dysfunctional.  Think of the arms races among superpowers, blood feuds in tribal societies, and bitter political disputes in which the only thing that matters is to beat one’s opponent.  The kind of reflection that Teilhard de Chardin had in mind comes to a screeching halt under these conditions, no matter how smart people remain in other respects.  For reflection to get started in the first place, there had to be an atmosphere of trust.

That atmosphere was not created by everyone suddenly becomes nice but by the ability to thwart the ambitions of others easily.  Christopher Boehm calls this “reverse dominance” in his book Hierarchy in the Forest.  In a typical primate dominance hierarchy, the meanest individual or coalition manges to intimidate the others and monopolise the resources.  In a typical small-scale human group, including hunter-gatherer societies around the world, the meanest individuals and coalitions are ridiculed, punished, expelled, or even executed unless they change their ways and fit in with the rest of the group.  We are an aggressively egalitarian species, and our passion for equality is manifested whenever we exist in small number with a relatively even balance of power among the members.

Equality is the requirement for a major transition.  As soon as individuals could no longer succeed at the expense of their neighbours, collective survival and reproduction became the primary means of natural selection.  Only then could our ancestors begin to share freely what they learned, develop an inventory of symbols with shared meaning, and otherwise make the transition from just another species with a fixed repetoire of behaviour to an open-ended evolutionary process.

Seeing cooperation as a precondition for reflection and reflection as a form of cooperation fits Teilhaird de Chardin’s broad vision in The Phenomenon of Man even better than reflection as an individual capacity that came first.  After all, Teilhard thought that reflection becomes a kind of distributed consciousness at the Omega Point.  Now we can say that it begins as a form of distributed consciousness at the sacle of very small groups.

David Sloan Wilson, The Neighborhood Project (2011) pp. 118-119

My City

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The wonderful stories about Binghamton’s early days are known largely because  a schoolteacher named John B. Wilkinson took the trouble to collect them and writen them down in a book published in 1840.  Today his tradition is carried on by the Broome County Historical Society, which has an impressive facility on the second floor of the County Library Building on Court Street.  In addition to dedicated amateur historians, the county has just enough money to employ two professional historians to keep track of our local past.  Before, I would have regarded their interest as quaint and provincial, but now I am beginning to think of them as keepers of a flame of infomation that I will need to consult as I begin to think about my city in a new way.

Binghamton’s era of prosperity might have ended with the nineteenth century except for two men, George F. Johnson and John B. Watson.  Johnson founded the Endicott-Johnson shoe company, which for a period was the largest manufacturer of shoes in the world.  Watson built a small company that made time clocks into the International Business Corporation (IBM), initiateing the mechanization of business and the age of computers.  Both took a paternal interest in their employes that stands in stark contract to the Enrons of today yet failed to serve their interests over the long term.

Unlike the crule factory owner of a Dickens novel or the sweatshops of today, Johnson took a passionate interest in his employees.  He called it “Industrial Democracy,” but it was more paternalistic than democratic.  he offered affordable housing in neighbourhoods that rose away from the river toward the steep hills.  He provided health care and made sure that the hospitals were sufficiently staffed with doctors.  Every baby received a ten-dollar gold piece and a bank account with another ten dollars as an opening deposit.  He voluntarily shortened the workday from nine and half to eight hours without any loss of pay, prompting a parade to be held in his honour.  The factory walls were adorned with wholesome proverbs such as “LIVE AND LET LIVE” and “FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL — SAVE!”  Workers were encourageed to publish their criticisms in the company magazine.  He created parks and other recreational facilities, including the world largest aboveground swimming pool for its time, which could accomodate 2000 bathers under the big block letters “COME ON IN — THE WATER’S FINE!”  As a boy, Johnson had been so poor that he couldn’t even afford to ride a carousel, so he built carousels throughout the city that could be ridden without charge.  Thanks to an endowment provided in his will, the carousels are maintained, and children continue to ride without charge to this day.  One of them is located across the street from my house, and I garden to its merry calliope music.  Johnson was so popular among his employees that they erected stone arches over Main Street, entering and leaving Johnson City, with the words “Home of the Square Deal!” carved along the top.  Efforts to unionize the Endicott-Johnson shoe company failed because Johnson had already given his employees everything they could imagine asking for.

Watson followed in the paternalistic footsteps of Johnson in this development of IBM.  Johnson convinced Watson that he could stay in the area and that the business would come to him.  A huge complex of buildings was built in Endicott, down street from Johnson city on the Susquehanna.  Engineers were recruited by the thousands, as the shoemakers were a few decades before.  Just as Johnson painted wholesome proverbs on his factory walls, Watson made a mantra out of the word THINK.  Before IBM became known for computers, it was filling an insatiable demand around the world for time clocks, adding machines, scales, automatic payroll machines, and other devices that made businesses run efficiently.

Alas, Binghamton’s prosperity was not to last.  For all of his benevolence, Johnson was slow to modernise his factories and could do nothng about the economic forces that caused the shoe industry to march west and eventually overseas.  IBM followed.  The workers who had placed their trust in Johnson and Watson found themselves defenseless against less enlightened leaders and harder economic times.  Today, when IBM is mentioned, it is mostly in connection with a toxic plume that contaminates the gournd water of sections of Endicott.  The remains of Endicott-Johnson’s physical plant include the arches, still standing, and the abandoned factories.  I have been told that the primary ethos of the Tri-Cities area (the collective name for Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott) is the sense of having been betrayed.

David Sloan Wilson, The Neighborhood Project (2011) pp. 34-38

Evolution and the World

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Field studies have two objectives that seem contradictory. First the whole point is to study organisms in relation to their natural environment without intervening. Second, the organisms must be studies with precision, which requires intervening. Individuals must be caught and measured from stem to stern to know what traits they possess and how they differ from one another. They must be marked if they do not already have natural markings that enable them to be identified. Sometimes they must be outfitted with radio transmitters so that they can be reliably located.  They must be observed and filmed to obtain a permanent record of their behaviours.  Their children must be counted to measure how they fared in the Darwinian contest.  While all this poking and prying is going on, they’re supposed to act naturally!

Remarkably, most species do act naturally after they have acclimated to the people and paraphernalia of a field study.  If you have watched Meerkat Manor, you know that Flower and other members of the Whiskers Clan hop onto the scales to be weighed for a small food reward. climb on the heads and shoulders of the scientists for a better look around, and otherwise treat the scientists as an unthreatening part of their environment.  Some species have even moved into our cities, such as pigeons long ago and deer and crows more recently, where they go about their daily lives in our midst, unconcerned by our presence unless we pose a threat.

David Sloan Wilson, The Neighbourhood Project (2011) p. 22

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