Monday, July 14, 2014

Arachno-Drama In My Backyard (WARNING: Contains spider images)

Two long-jawed orb-weavers in my garden.
This week I was privileged to watch a small drama acted out in my bee balm.  The flowers grow close together, creating a diverse and compact set of micro-environments. A quick glance won't reveal much, but if you sit still and let your eyes shift their focus thousands of small lives start to appear. 

The plot is only about a square meter, but these plants provide habitat and hunting grounds for numerous orb-weavers, jumping spiders, and funnel-web spiders.  It's a treat to find an argiope or a goldenrod spider in these places.  They may be deadly to insects, but they're a beautiful part of the ecosystem.

In the first photo you can see, in the lower left, a long-jawed orb weaver.  If you look to the upper right, you'll see another.

Here's what happened: a small biting fly landed on my leg while I was watching the spiders, and it bit me.  I flicked it off, and it landed on this web.  For a moment, the spiders did nothing while the fly tried to disentangle itself. I couldn't help thinking of karma.

One spider rushed in to seize the other when it went for the fly.
After a second or two, the spider in the lower left dashed out to seize the fly.  This much could have been expected, I think.  What came next surprised me, though.  The second spider dashed out and seized...the first spider, as you can see in the second and third photos.

In the third photo you can see that the spiders are entirely engrossed with each other, while the fly is being ignored by them. The two spiders remained tangled like this for a while, without moving.  Eventually, I was being bitten by too many flies and so I left.

Half an hour later I came back with my camera to see how it had gone.  I was sure the spider that built the web would be dead, since it appeared to have been at a disadvantage in the fight.

Here they are ignoring the fly and grappling with each other.
Surprisingly, I found the fly gone, and both spiders had returned to their previous positions, as you can see in the fourth photo.  I suppose this could have been a territory fight, or mating, or competition for prey.  I don't know.

The best part of this is discovering something new that was going on in my own garden about which I know next to nothing.  Since then I've been poring over books and doing web searches when I have spare time.  If you know more about this species and what was going on here, I'd love to hear from you.

And then they returned to their earlier positions.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Protecting Borders, Loving Neighbors, And The Economics Of Child Migration

Time Magazine reported last week that President Obama is seeking 2 billion dollars to reduce the flow of young illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Too often our approach to this problem is, like many U.S. political questions, polarized into mutually repellent views about how we should view our laws.  Should we reform them or enforce them?  Let me suggest another angle from which to consider the problem.

Eight years ago, Reynold Nesiba (an economist who is my friend and colleague) and I co-taught a course for American students in Nicaragua. The purpose of the course was to spend time thinking and talking about the effects of globalization on a small developing nation.

We both prefer to teach contextually, so that the assertions of our readings and lectures can be supported and challenged by what the students see and experience in the places we visit.
Coffee beans grown in Nicaragua.

We spent time with collective coffee growers, and with big coffee processors; with small, independent textile workers and in an international textile plant built in a tax-free zone in Managua.  We did homestays and met with development workers, a health clinic and a local church. We met with and listened to as many people, from as many points of view, as we could.

Workers sort coffee beans.
The downside to teaching this way is that both students and professors become much more aware of the complexity of the problems of globalization, and facile, armchair solutions to those problems tend to fall quickly to pieces.  That is to say, the downside to teaching this way is that it makes it harder to maintain simplistic and dogmatic views.  Which is to say, it's a good way to educate people.

Although the course made many things unclear, it made a few things clearer.  Among them are these:
  • The economy of Nicaragua is closely tied to the economy of the United States;
  • Many Nicaraguans have had to leave their family farms because cheap exports from the United States make it impossible to sell their produce and grain at competitive prices;
  • Those who leave the family farm often fail to find work in the cities;
  • One cause of this is that the work conditions in the cities are largely established and controlled by the international firms that can easily relocate to other poor countries if their requirements are not met.  This keeps wages low, and makes it difficult for the country to receive any tax benefit from international industry;
  • So capital freely flows out of the country and across borders;
  • People follow the capital as it flows.
I'm not an economist, and it should be kept in mind that I'm reporting anecdotally on what I learned almost a decade ago.  I teach in Central America regularly, and what I see continues to support the points I've just made, above, but I may be missing something important.

If I'm right, though, then it gives some context to the persistent problem of illegal migration across our southern border, and it suggests a remedy.

The problem is plain: poor people are following the money trail, and fleeing the harsh economic conditions that prevail in poor countries.

The remedy is also plain, even if it is not easy: we need to figure out a way to increase the flow of capital into places like Nicaragua, and to do it in such a way that it increases jobs (not merely increasing the income of the top earners) and increases the tax base.  One such possibility - especially if my second bullet point, above, is correct - would be to examine the way farm subsidies might actually be decreasing our ability to secure our borders.  Our nation reaps profit from Nicaragua.  Is it possible to do so in a way that also benefits Nicaragua?

I don't mean to pretend to be an expert here.  I do have some relevant experience in Central America (from teaching regularly in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize) but it's far from being hard data.  But surely what we need is not fewer anecdotes but more stories from and about people who are most affected by the economies of our several American nations.  If we are to love our neighbors, we need to learn who they are and what drives them.  A mother who would send her young child, alone, across Mexico in search of a new life is either wicked or desperate, and the latter seems the likelier story.  the roots of the word "desperate" mean "without hope."  Loving our neighbors surely must include trying to give hope to the hopeless, and not merely building a wall across the only path towards hope that they can imagine.


The old cathedral of Managua. Unused since it was damaged by an earthquake 40 years ago.
Here are a couple more photos from our course.  I've only included photos from cooperatives because the international firms we visited prohibited photography, claiming they were protecting "trade secrets."  As near as I could tell, there wasn't much to protect in those places, since the machinery was all very simple: sewing machines, bean sorting machines and baggers.  More likely, they were concerned about bad publicity arising from documentation of their working conditions.  The photo of the cathedral in Managua is a reminder of how poor the capital city is: such a beautiful building has languished for four decades because there are no funds to restore it.

A coffee cooperative in the mountains of Nicaragua.

A sewing cooperative.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Who Are You Calling A "Hero"?

Most common uses of the word "hero" fall into one of two categories: we either use it to refer to someone ordinary who does something extraordinary - a passerby who rescues a child who has fallen into a canal, for instance - or to anyone who wears a uniform.

The problem with the first usage is that it makes heroism something accidental.  The hero is in every way ordinary, but then they are faced with sudden unanticipated hardship and they overcome it. Little attention is paid to what led to the heroic act.  It was an event thrust upon the hero, and nothing prepared the hero for this heroism.  They just chose well in a tight situation. When we use the word this way we undervalue the character of the "hero," and ignore their discipline and virtues (or lack thereof).

The second usage has three problems: First, it's obviously mistaken, as events like Abu Ghraib and My Lai should make plain. Second, as with the first usage, it diminishes the long, hard work of those men and women who live heroically through self-discipline and the cultivation of courage and moral character. Third, this usage is almost always cynical, and politically motivated.  It is usually the politician who says it, and usually for the benefit of the politician.  It is a shibboleth of political life to "honor the troops" or "salute the men and women in uniform" in words -- and usually in words only.  Real honor and real salutes come through much harder means, like supporting them financially, emotionally, and spiritually.

Aristotle (correctly) said you can't really judge someone's life as happy until they have lived it all. It's probably similar with calling someone a hero. Certainly we should stop making statues of people while they're still alive.  It should probably be a rule of life that we shouldn't call anyone a hero without serious public debate leading to consensus.  When you compare the process by which the Catholic church determines whether to call someone a saint to the process by which an American politician decides to call someone a hero, it's pretty plain which of the two processes is more rigorous and which is cynical and thoughtless. At least the church engages in research first.

Maybe we should stop using the word altogether, because there is another problem that comes with most uses of the word: naming someone a hero practically divinizes that person, making it much harder for us to think critically about his flaws.  This ought to concern all of us, and especially the one called a hero, who is thereby even further distanced from our common life. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Twenty-Year Plan: Pick A Star To Steer By

Often, when my students ask me what they should write their term papers about, I ask them to take the long view.  What have they been studying that they will want to remember twenty years from now?  Write about that, I say, and write for the sake of yourself, twenty years older than you are now.

It's probably frustrating to hear me say that, because I haven't really answered the question.  If you came to me looking for me to name a topic, you left disappointed.  I've only converted your question into another question.

But I hope the new question is a more helpful one.  What do I want to know twenty years from now?  What kind of person do I want to be then?  What would I like that person to remember?

This is a hard thing to do, to imagine yourself twenty years older than you are now.  Twenty years ago my image of my life at mid-career was at best very vague.

But it does not take long to discover that for most of us life is full of very urgent pressures.  Student loans come due.  Our employers demand that we produce certain results that may be only indirectly related to accomplishing the goals we have set for ourselves.  Paying my taxes doesn't directly contribute to my long-term plans except by keeping me out of jail.  And if you marry or have children that, too, will quickly complicate your life.

I can't sort all of life's complications out for you, but I can offer you some advice: form a twenty-year plan.  Take a little time, right now, to ask yourself: where do I want to be in twenty years?  

And then do that again and again as often as you can for the rest of your life.

Here's the thing: don't worry about whether you'll actually get there.  None of us can see the road ahead.  At most, we see a few steps ahead and we guess at what lies beyond them.  We are like travelers in a dark land, where the road is obscure and all we can see is the twinkling sky.

Well, then, pick a star to steer by.

It may be that you will cross one of life's horizons and that star will no longer be visible.  Okay.  But you can see it now, right?  So follow it faithfully while it shines the brightest.  Set a goal - I want to be out of debt, I want to be working with people I like, I want to earn enough to support my family and give charitably, etc - and then ask which direction you'll have to step in to move closer to it.

Because the alternative is that you will constantly be looking down at your feet, at the urgent matters of where to step next.  And that is, after all, pretty important.  You don't want to turn an ankle or step off a ledge.  But if you're always looking down at the urgent things, your neck will bend and get used to that angle, and you'll have no idea where you're going or how you're getting there.

So look up, pick a star, and follow it.  And then keep looking up.


A hypocrite is someone who tells you to do one thing while doing another.  If you're wondering, yes, I have a twenty-year plan.  And it undergoes constant revision.  It's always changing, and yet, as I compare versions of it, I find that there are constant themes, like these:

* I want to be more in love with my wife, and to be making her glad to be in love with me twenty years from now;
* I want to continue to be learning new things;
* I want to live near my kids for at least part of every year;
* I want to earn what we need, and to be a generous giver to those who have a hard time doing so.

These aren't the specifics, but some of the general themes that keep emerging.  One great thing about allowing yourself to revise your twenty-year plan is that you won't go crazy trying to do what turns out to be impossible.  Another is that these patterns will emerge that will help you to know yourself and your deepest values a little better.

I am wishing you the best on your journey as I write this.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to Help Ukraine: Solar Foreign Policy

In today's newspaper it was announced that Russia has once again cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine.  This will, no doubt, be a huge economic blow to Ukraine, since so much of their industry depends on a reliable source of gas.

Our first response to international crises is often to send military aid of one kind or another.  In this case, we should send another kind of aid, one that will benefit both the United States and Ukraine.

Here's my idea:  let's buy a billion dollars worth of solar panels from United States manufacturers and then ship them to Ukraine along with other equipment necessary for storing electricity and for converting gas-powered plants to electric-powered plants.

The upside for us is obvious: a billion dollars invested in U.S. industries, an increase in engineering and related jobs, and money invested in companies that will turn much of what they earn into R&D.  In addition, we'll have helped another country achieve a little bit of energy independence. This seems like an excellent goal of U.S. foreign policy.


(Full disclosure: I own shares of First Solar and Tesla, American companies that might benefit from such an investment.)

Charles Peirce on Transcendentalism, and the Common Good

From one of Charles S. Peirce's college writings, dated 1859.  At the time he was a student at Harvard College.
"The devotion to fair learning is not of this rabid kind, but it is more selfish.  Antiquity has not accumulated its treasures for me; God has not made nature for me: if I wish to belong to the community of wise men, my time is not my own; my mind is not my own; in this age division of labor is indispensable; one man must study one thing; develope one part of his intellect and, if necessary, let the rest go, for the good of humanity.  Emerson, and perhaps Everett [1], pretend to go on a different principle; but really, each has his peculiar mission. Emerson is the man-child and he does men great service by just opening himself to them. "XXXXX [2] vision!" said Carlyle.  Everett possesses "action, utterance, and the power of speech to stir men's blood."  Both these men do good esthetically.  Everett is a gem-cutter, Emerson is a gem." (MS 1633)
Charles S. Peirce, MS 1633, dated 1859
A section of MS 1633, dated 1859

It's a short paragraph, but it offers considerable insight into the development of Peirce's thought, and it is full of suggestion for our own time.

His claim that a scholar must devote herself to one area only must be taken in the context of Peirce's own studies.  Peirce was himself a polymath who wrote on logic, metaphysics, physics, geometry, ancient philology, semiotics, mathematics, and chemistry, among other disciplines.

What he says about learning here is relevant for the ancient tradition of publishing the results of inquiry, and for the contemporary practice of patenting all discoveries.  Nature is not a gift from God to the individual researcher.  Peirce's invocation of God here calls to mind what he says elsewhere about both God and research.  (For more on how Peirce regarded the relationship between God and science, see my chapter in Torkild Thellefsen's collection of essays on Peirce, Peirce in His Own Words.) The idea of God provides an ideal for the researcher, a reason to expect natural research to be productive of knowledge and a reason to believe in the possible unity of knowledge. 

(This helps us to understand Peirce's peculiar interest in religion, by the way: he thought religion both indispensable and unavoidable, claiming that even most atheists believe in God, though most of them are unaware of their own belief, because they have explicitly rejected a particular kind of theism while maintaining a steadfast belief in some of the consequences of theism.  At the same time, Peirce was opposed to all infallible claims, to the exclusionary nature of creeds, and to what he considered to be the illogic of seminary-training.)

Peirce grew up, as he puts it, "in the neighborhood of Cambridge," i.e. near the home of American Transcendentalism.  He says of his family that "one of my earliest recollections is hearing Emerson [giving] his address on 'Nature'.... So we were within hearing of the Transcendentalists, though not among them.  I remember when I was a child going upon an hour's railway journey with Margaret Fuller, who had with her a book called the Imp [3] in the Bottle." (MS 1606)  His critiques of Transcendentalism have to be read in this context: he was raised among them, with Emerson in his childhood living room and with Emerson's writings being discussed in his school.

Emerson's insight is that nature does speak to those who have ears to hear.  His error is in mistaking the relationship of one person to another.  Emerson's genius is in perceiving the Over-soul, and his error is in then presupposing the radical individuality of the genius.  Peirce does not doubt that there are geniuses.  As a chemist, Peirce knew the importance of research and he knew the real possibility of achieving previously unknown insight.  Peirce believed, however, that the insight of the genius, or of any serious researcher for that matter, belongs to the whole community of inquiry.

Peirce, who made his living on research, believed that the researcher deserved to earn her living from her work, and he was sometimes frustrated by the chemical companies who took his ideas and patented them, then refused to pay him for them.  His ideal - one that is admittedly very difficult to realize - was that all research would be made freely available to the whole community of inquiry.  So while the researcher is worth her wages, no one deserves the privilege of hoarding knowledge for private gain.  We are all in this together.


[1] I'm not sure which Everett Peirce alludes to, but possibly to Edward Everett, who was Emerson's teacher; or Alexander H. Everett, with whom Emerson corresponded.

[2] The word on Peirce's manuscript is difficult to read.  I have transcribed this from a photocopy of one of Peirce's original handwritten pages.  The word might be "ecstatic" but I don't think it is. See the image above. 

[3] This word is also unclear, and might read "Ink."  If you're curious about this, or if you've got some insight about this, write to me in the comments below; I've spent some time trying to figure out what book Fuller had with her, so far with only a small amount of success.

With each of these footnotes, I welcome your feedback and corrections in the footnotes below.  Peirce wrote that the work of the researcher is never a solitary affair, but always the work of a community of inquiry, after all.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Theodicy and Phenomenal Curiosity

I have, right now, a terrific headache.  It is a long, spidery headache whose bulging, raspy abdomen sits over my eyes and whose long forelegs reach across my head and down my spine.  One leg is probing my belly and provoking nausea.  It came on suddenly, dropping from the air, and it has become a constant efflorescence of discomfort.  Each moment it is renewed.  I try to turn my attention away, and it pulses, drawing me back.  Fine, I will give it my attention and stare it down, dominate it.  No, it has no steady gaze to match; every instant it is a new hostility towards being.  It will not hold still, it is my Proteus, but I am no Menelaus.  I cannot grapple it into submission.

I should stop writing, stop looking at the screen, but I want, as Bugbee says in the first page of The Inward Morning, to "get it down," to attend to this moment as its own revelation.  I want, in a way, to put this idea to the test.  I can write and think when I am feeling well, but it is hard to write in times like this.

Life is interesting.  This, too, is an interesting moment, and this pain is interesting.

The urge to turn this into a rule for others is to be resisted.  My pain is interesting to me because I have chosen to make it so.  I have chosen to be curious while I am able.  And this is not the worst headache I've had, it's just strong and annoying.

But -- and this is the important thing, I think -- I must not insist that others do the same.  I must not say that "pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world," I must not say that "all things work together for good," that pain is all part of a bigger plan.

I admit that all of that may be true.  It may be that the suffering of others will be the darkness that makes the brightness of the divine and eternal chiaroscuro shine brighter.

But to insist that pain is good is the privilege of those who are in no pain and the blasphemy of those who have forgotten fellow-feeling.  It is lacking in sympathy, and in kindness.  It is, in short, lacking in love.

In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, St. Paul wrote something like this: no matter what I say, no matter how beautifully I say it, if I speak without love, I might as well not be speaking at all.  (I am paraphrasing, so if you're someone who's bothered by people paraphrasing the Bible and want to see his words, here you go.)

I cannot write any more right now.


It is now several days later, and the pain is gone.  Which means that now, when I think of the pain, I do so through the watery filter of time, which bends and distorts the image like water bending the image of the dipped oar.  I no longer behold it as I did when I was in medias res, in the midst of things.  I'm glad it doesn't hurt, but I've got to remember not to make it seem easier than it was.

Years ago a surgeon cut me open "from stem to stern" (his cheerful words, not mine) and then stapled me back together.  I awoke barely able to breathe.  The painkillers they gave me didn't remove the pain, they only relocated it to a part of my brain that cared less, made it less the center of my attention. Even there, it constantly tried to crawl back into the center, to take over my consciousness.  I'm grateful that it did not last long.  My awareness of that gratitude gives me great sympathy for those who cannot make their pain end, who have no hope that soon the healing will make the pain a dull memory rather than a sharp presence goading their consciousness.

At the time, I found it a helpful strategy to attend to the pain as a curiosity, to tell myself "this is interesting," and to ask "what can I learn from this pain right now?"  I couldn't sustain this for long, but I could do it again and again, with ever-renewed curiosity, and I found enormous solace and spiritual interest in it.  It put me above my pain, and stripped my pain of its domineering attitude.  It no longer loomed over me while I gazed down at it with wondering eyes.

But again, this is extremely difficult to sustain, and it probably takes a certain weird, philosophical warp of mind to begin with, a phenomenal curiosity cultivated and strengthened by long habit well before the pain began.  It's hard to come up with something like this in the moment agony strikes.


The upshot of all this, for me, is twofold: first, it is good to have discovered, in the midst of my own pain, that I may always regard my own life as interesting, no matter what happens.  Second, I must always remember that this is a curious discovery I have made about myself, not a universal fact for all people.

Of course, I am writing my discovery down here because I hope that it will prove true for others.  And I think its greatest application is not for the destruction of sharp physical pain but for addressing the flat white pain of boredom.  When boredom drops down from above and wraps us in its gauzy, nauseating silk, this, too, can become the object of our curiosity.  The very fact of our boredom may be examined, and examined profitably.

But in all our examinations, we must not be - we must never be - unkind by despising the pain of others, dismissing it and insisting that if we can dismiss it, they can too.