Saturday, March 31, 2007

Is every plaza in NYS an "Empire State Plaza"?

This week's travels were to Lake George and Albany. The camera phone pictures are grainy, but they are certainly quick to upload -- talk about instant gratification!

Here, brought to you all the way from the Empire State Plaza, is the "Trio" sculpture (bright yellow in real life) by George Sugarman, with City Hall as a backdrop.

I walked into and through the Sugarman sculpture. That was fun.

This one was interesting. It sort of worked with the 4 agency buildings (the tall striped ones on the left) and with the jagged roof lines of City Hall.

"The Egg" is appropriate as we enter into Holy Week. (In fact just today, dubbed "Palm Saturday" by church wags, we had an Easter pancake break for homeless men; they had the opportunity to eat and run (as a lot of them did) or to decorate Easter eggs afterward.)

Governor Spitzer promised to shake things up in Albany. Not sure how he's doing with his proposed budget (or the long-desired judicial salary increases), but it would seem he's already got started on some of the historic government buildings....

One disturbing image: has feminism gone too far?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Part 2: "Darwin's God" (NYT 3/4/07) & "Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior" (NYT 3/20/07)

In my 3/6/07 post, I noted that "I am inclined to think that God-belief is adaptive.... God-belief is essentially an aspirational component of our psychological make-up. It is in some sense an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with our inherent limitations (mortality, physical frailty) and a longing to be somehow connected with something bigger and greater than us that will outlast us. What could be more adaptive than that?"

Here is some additional fleshing-out of that concept (with help from Nicholas Wade's 3/20/07 NYT article on the intersection of evolutionary biology and morality).

Question 1: How can belief in a deity or deities enhance survival of individuals or groups?

(I am trying to be very general here, rather than speaking from my own monotheistic view.)

a. Belief in a deity or deities can set the stage for prescribing, enforcing and (significantly) self-enforcing a moral code, i.e., behaviors that enable individuals to live in harmony together, thus enhancing their collective likelihood of survival.

According to the 3/20 NYT article: Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University (and director of the Living Links Center, whatever that means), "argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile."

Dr. de Waal has identified four core behaviors that make group living feasible and advantageous for the group: (1) empathy, (2) the ability to learn and follow social rules, (3) reciprocity and (4) peacemaking.

These behaviors are found in chimpanzees,* but they are more highly developed in humans. Religion is one of "two extra levels of sophistication" found in human morality.**

The NYT reports that "[t]here are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion."

b. Belief in a deity or deities can give individuals a reason to undertake works for the long-term collective good, whether or not the individual has any rational hope of living to benefit from those works.

Now that I consider this argument further, I think it could be a spandrel -- i.e., it could be that the same built-in aspirational component*** that causes us to be open to belief in a higher power also causes us to want to leave some sort of legacy that will outlive and outlast us.

Either way, I think it is clear that surprisingly large numbers of people have, over the course of human history, felt compelled to invent and improve and build things that will outlast them.

Perhaps this aspirational component of our nature also enhances the overall likelihood of survival of our species, because the vast majority of people (not just the wisest or most powerful) can achieve a sort of "immortality" by having children.

c. In conflicts between two groups, if one group believes that it is backed by a deity or deities, and the other group doesn't, the deist group probably has a natural advantage.

The belief that "god is on our side" is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy unless there is a tremendous disparity (of health or terrain-appropriate weaponry, for instance) between the two groups.

Specifically, the deists are (a) less likely to be demoralized by suffering and losses (all setbacks are "temporary" if you know that the godless infidels cannot ultimately prevail) and (b) more likely to take the kind of risks necessary to prevail.

Question 2: If belief in a deity or deities is "adaptive", can it also be true?

This is a trickier question, and I'm not likely to be able to convince the skeptical. But here's the way I look at it.

Suppose God exists. If so, he has created (via the slow, cruel miracle of evolution) one species that has, in some ways, grown to dominate the planet.**** This species is distinguished from others by a capacity for logic and reason, and a propensity to discern moral rules and a divine presence.

To me, it seems natural that (a) God would instill in us (one way or another) a desire and ability to seek him and (b) living in harmony with God's plan for us would enhance our collective survival.

I would even tentatively speculate that a group that has developed religious views that bring them closer to God's truth is more likely to be successful (from an evolutionary perspective) than other groups who are further from God's truth. I am not sure what this would mean for western civilization, which appears to be gravitating toward atheism, or for insects, which would seem to lack any God-belief but will presumably inherit the earth when we are all gone.

FN * "Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. ... [Dr. de Waal] noticed [in the 1960s] that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. He found that consolation was universal among the
great apes but generally absent from monkeys — among macaques, mothers will not even reassure an injured infant. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. ... [Female chimpanzees] will [sometimes] head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands. ... Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them." 3/20/07 NYT.

FN ** The other "extra level[] of sophistication" in human morality involves a capacity for logic and reason (as well as a propensity for greater and more complex systems of reward and punishment).

FN *** Cf. 3/20/07 NYT article: "Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book “Moral Minds” that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language."

FN **** There are obvious limits on our ability to dominate the planet. Insects, for example, do not seem susceptible to our so-called dominion. And all our actions and technology are puny indeed in the face of the great power of the earth itself: e.g., volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis. Think about Krakatoa, which shook the entire earth and changed the weather.

Friday, March 23, 2007

This is New York

I've been traveling thoughout New York State recently. A few highlights:


A red Mustang is available in the Buffalo airport, free of charge. Plus it is environmentally friendly, because it has no internal combustion engine. The only catch is that you can only fit in it if you are 4 feet or shorter. I noticed that dads were more enamored of this toy than their kids, who had to be coaxed into posing in it.

Here is the view from the window of the kids' area in the Buffalo airport. This airstrip doesn't look very secure to me.


By contrast, the Rochester airport is grimly under construction. It would seem that child labor laws are being circumvented, based on the marks left by elementary school children on the temporary construction walls - clearly a cry for help.

White Plains

Here is a picture from a courtyard in White Plains. The sign says "KEEP OFF THE GRASS", but that kid to the left is just paying no attention to the rules. Maybe he thinks he can get away with it as long as his feet keep off the grass.


Back in Manhattan, Phil and Ginger celebrated Phil's 28th birthday by giving away red velvet cupcakes (home-baked by Ginger using a recipe lifted from Phil's grandma) outside of an Indian restaurant. As you can see, our choice of restaurant was constrained by our need to maximize the number of chili pepper lights per square inch.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

No Bats in the Belfry.

After a thorough behind-the-scenes tour, I am happy to report that Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church does not have bats in the belfry. Of course, this is in large part because we have no belfry. We only have a clock tower. Apparently at the time of design/construction of the building in the 1870's, the church was asked not to install bells so as not to disturb the patients in St. Luke's Hospital across the street. The hospital is now the Peninsula Hotel.

Accessing the attic: To get up above the sanctuary, you have to be reasonably spry and healthy, be plugged into certain church programs, stay on the administration's "good side", and promise not to sue the church. We were asked to carry our signed releases on us as we climbed up a small staircase amid a maze of catwalks and support structures.

The church's web site provides a virtual tour of the publicly accessible areas of the building, but also provides these comments on the attic:
The original lighting was large gaslights, some of which still reside in the attic above the ceiling.

Also in the attic are four huge trusses, most likely from Scandinavia, which are the main support for the roof and the ceiling of the church. These trusses are wood timbers with steel pipe bracing; they are about 120 feet in length and run east to west, an unusual architectural layout.

The abandoned gaslight fixtures were prety cool. However, the attic space above the sanctuary is not lit by gas, but instead by modern high-energy-efficiency light bulbs ... plus (on the Fifth Avenue side) its own stained glass window, which is not visible from the sanctuary:

The indoor roof of the sanctuary looks like the upturned hull of a ship. This picture shows a bit of the curvature (I couldn't capture the whole thing with my camera):

Around the edges, you can glimpse the outer layer of the stained glass windows that illuminate the sanctuary below (there are two layers of glass which presumably help with energy conservation):

Stage 1: We walked over the sanctuary roof to the clock tower, although we stayed on the catwalks rather than scrambing across the actual roof (which would have been fun). At our first stop, Rev. Rock showed us the magic incantation that makes the clock run:

Just kidding about the incantation. It turns out that our clock runs on rocks. Specifically, a big box of rocks. Some lucky person comes up here once a week and winds a winch to bring the box of rocks up to the top of a pulley system; over the course of the week, the box falls, powering the clock.

The room also featured (seemingly) a ladder to nowhere, or else a fire exit. Our intrepid comrade Denis reported, however, that it provides access to the roof. The rest of us took his word for it.

Stage 2: We climbed up the stairs to the right of the ladder, and reached the guts of the clock mechanism (you can see Keith and Patrick on the other side of the machine):

The mechanism turns the hands on all 3 clock faces. Based on the structure of the arms and gears, it looks like the mechanism is designed to be able to deal with a fourth clock face, which would logically be placed on the fourth wall of the tower. But the fourth wall is blank. Our pastor - who was not present at the time - reports that the church was specifically asked not to put a clock face on the side of the tower visible to the hospital. Apparently it would have been disturbing or confusing to the patients to see the passage of time. Perhaps the hospital administrators didn't want patients to know when the doctors were late for their rounds.... Or how long it was between relatives' visits....

The mechanism also runs a smaller inside clock, presumably so the clockmaster can adjust for daylight savings time or at least check whether everything is working OK.

Stage 3: The level above this clockwork has a bunch of louvers, which are covered with screens to keep out the pigeons. And perhaps bats as well. The screens are not a very fine mesh - they were maybe 1 cm openings - so they would let in most insects as well as dust. Surprisingly, the louver/screen combo was not entirely effective against the snow; there were a few small drifts inside.

Stage 4: As you can see, there are still more stairs leading upward -- apparently it gets darker, narrower, and more claustrophobic. And apparently there is a place where you find yourself surrounded by 4 locked doors. Potentially the stuff of nightmares. This was the end of our journey, however, and well worth it. No signs of bats anywhere.

The church now known as the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church started way downtown (a few miles south of where it is now) in 1808. The church's web site (at the virtual tour, history and architecture pages) provides some intriguing details about the migration to our current location (the fourth so far):
  • "The land [at 55th Street and Fifth Avenue] was purchased at the intersection of what were still two dirt roads amidst mansions like those that still stand along the east side of Central Park. The cost of the land was $350,000." (I have a feeling that was pretty expensive at the time, for land on the outskirts of NYC civilization. But the land would probably be worth 100 times that now. Air rights above the sanctuary were sold 15 years ago for $15 million.)
  • The current edifice was "[d]esigned ... in 1873" by the New York architect Carl Pfeiffer (a 37-year-old German immigrant), and they didn't waste a lot of time getting building permits because "[t]he church cornerstone was laid on June 9, 1873."
  • "The new church was dedicated May 9, 1875," although the steeple was not completed until 1876.
  • In 1875, "Ulysses S. Grant was President of the U.S.[,] Alexander Graham Bell pioneered the telephone; [t]he Kentucky Derby had its first running; the first roller skating rink opened; the first ice cream soda was invented."

Later that evening, I caught the movie "The Host" - one of the best movies I've seen in a while. Funny, suspenseful, and action-packed.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Young Crocodile with Twig

I took a few video clips of the crocodile, although many of them look more like meditations on mangrove reflections in the water.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Catching Up

Well, a lot has happened in the last 10 days, and I haven't gotten back to update my previous post (although I just responded to RunnerNYC's comment today).

So here are a few pictures from last weekend in the mean time. A heron among the mangroves:

A young crocodile (you can tell because the face is narrower than an alligator's) pushing a small tree branch through the water:

One really cool thing was that a bunch of brown pelicans were all siting around in the ocean in front of the beach house like ducks on a pond... Then they would pop up (very much like popcorn), flying 12-15 feet into the air, then diving straight down for fish. Totally awesome.

Here we have a brown pelican in flight over the ocean (you will note that this one has not scored a fish):

Meanwhile, back in the brackish waters of the wildlife refuge, some of the white pelicans were trying to infiltrate a group of smaller water birds. They didn't really fit in though.

Speaking of fitting in, here are two words to remember for spring fashion: straw hats. Our cross-generational fashionistas demonstrate that this season's hats are flattering on every body.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Initial Thoughts on "Darwin's God" (NYT 3/4/07)

Robin Marantz Henig's article, "Darwin's God," explores one particular intersection between science and religion: "In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?"

Some of the scientists in Henig's article suspect (as I do) that the answer to the first question is yes.

With respect to the second question, Henig reports on a split of opinion between scientists who believe that God-belief is or was "adaptive" (a quality that somehow "enhance[d human] survival or reproductive success" either at the individual or group level) and those who believe that God-belief is a "spandrel" (a meaningless byproduct of some other adaptive trait).

I am inclined to think that God-belief is adaptive, but for reasons not discussed in the article. God-belief is essentially an aspirational component of our psychological make-up. It is in some sense an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with our inherent limitations (mortality, physical frailty) and a longing to be somehow connected with something bigger and greater than us that will outlast us. What could be more adaptive than that?

There's obviously more to say to flesh this out.

I will also comment later on the assumptions of some of the atheist scientists mentioned in the article, such as the starting assumption - itself an article of faith - that "many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Make Your Own Pottery

At a shop called "MAKE" on the upper west side, you can "make" your own pottery. In the adults-only evening hours, they provide wine to release inhibitions and let your inner kid take over the process.

Making pottery at this shop does not, as I originally imagined, involve wet clay and a pottery wheel. No reenactments of "Ghost", even for the grown-ups! (Just as well, since I dimly recall disliking the movie.) Instead, you purchase a pre-formed piece of unglazed pottery, and then you paint on it with washable paints (at $6/hour). If you make a mistake, you can actually wash it off with a sponge. Stencils are available, such as one for the outline of a house with a heart in the middle of it. Here, the house was stenciled in red:

I did a very simple yin & yang design on a salad plate (aqua and green, separated by an orange stripe), then I painted the rim of the plate orange and the underside red. Unglazed, the red and orange look pretty darn similar; the colors are quite pale, even after multiple coats. When they are glazed and fired, they supposedly will darken. I'll find out in a week.

Today was spring in so many senses of the word. 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Birds chirping in the courtyard. Sunshine streaming through the windows. So I spent most of the day outside, on a long walk. I ran whenever a song spurred me into it, with a spring in my step. That worked out to roughly 15-20 minutes of running, in song-length spurts. With long sleeves and long pants, it was even a bit too warm. Most runners were out in shorts and t-shirts!

I liked the name of this gardening store (PlantWorks) because it reminded me of a now-defunct Boston-based speech recognition company named SpeechWorks. Whenever their employees would get together to organize group activities, it would be "SnowWorks" (for a ski trip), "RaftWorks" (for a rafting trip), etc. I went rafting with them the weekend of September 14-16, 2001 up to Maine. It was a good trip, and one of the psychologically healthiest things I could possibly have done at the time.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cha No Agi & It's not easy being a Luddite

I turned down every opportunity to switch over to "the new" (aka google) for the last several months. I wasn't interested in participating in their beta test, and I sure as heck didn't want to switch over now. I am skeptical about the new features (whatever they may be), which I obviously don't need, and fear this is all a big set-up so that they can impose charges for the blogging service down the road. But they finally gave me no choice. So here I am, with a brand-new google account and a whole new login and password to remember (ugh).

Laziness triumphed tonight - I was very tempted to go catch a free concert of the Julliard string quartet at Lincoln Center tonight on the spur of the moment, but luckily I decided it was too chilly, too far, too much bother, etc. Why is this lucky? Because at precisely the time that the concert was to start, I had a co-op meeting. Which I totally forgot. All I can say is, it was a lot easier for my neighbors to find me and drag me off to the meeting from my apartment instead of somehow tracking me down in Lincoln Center. That would have been tough - the ushers won't let anyone in after the performance begins.

Tuesday, I saw "The Taste of Tea", a slow and quiet movie which is also beautiful and sweetly surreal. It simply follows a typical Japanese family out in the countryside, living in a traditional Japanese house with sliding doors. Each family member has a project of sorts that he or she is working on during the course of the movie. For the most part, they pursue their projects separately (as do daughter Sachiko and her older brother Hajime), but sometimes there is overlap, synergy, or at least a shared meal or neighboring sleeping mats. There are a few deaths, and a rebirth.

The critics loved it - as did I - and yet their reviews were misleading. For instance, they say the daughter Sachiko "is being stalked by a gigantic, mute version of herself" (TONY, 2/22/07 at 105) or "is followed around by a giant version of herself, which she thinks she can get rid of if only she can manage to do a back flip on the horizontal bar" (NYT, 2/22/07). Well, yes and no. It is a bit presumptuous to say Sachiko's doppelganger is "mute"; all we can say for sure is that it (like Sachiko herself) doesn't speak during the movie. And this presence is not "following" Sachiko around. That would imply movement along the surface of the earth. The presence just appears to her from time to time, rising out of the ground or over a building. Even more critically, the word "stalked" is wrong because the presence is not sinister, in fact, it appears to be entirely benign. It does not disturb anything in the physical realm (no buildings are crushed, no leaves sway when it appears). The presence does not seem to provoke any alarm or anxiety in Sachiko, and other people do not notice it at all. Sachiko's quest to get rid of her doppelganger appears to be motivated perhaps by a desire for normalcy or a decision that she'd rather not have that distraction in her life. She mentions the apparition to no one.

And Sachiko is actually rather skeptical that doing a back flip will have any effect on the presence -- even though she overhears her uncle telling a story about how his haunting (by a bloody tatooed male presence) suddenly disappeared at the moment he mastered the back flip. Since she knows no other technique to try, she eventually undertakes to learn to do a back flip. She finds the back flip is a very challenging manoeuver, but she is determined and perseveres. (She does not seek assistance from her uncle, who already knows how to do a back flip, so it's slow going.) When she finally masters the simple move around the horizontal bar in an overgrown and abandoned playground beyond a "no trespassing" sign, she has what appears to be practically an out of body experience with a giant sunflower that grows and expands into the entire universe. Oh yes, and her doppelganger disappears.

Her brother's project is romantic in nature: Hajime (a shy freshman boy) is desperately trying to find a way to meet and win the girl he has a crush on - even though he knows he could never dare talk to her. He seems at first to be easily duped and thwarted, yet by the end of the movie, he has started to become friends with her both because of and despite all his best efforts.

This story dynamic (where, in order to accomplish a goal, it is absolutely necessary but not sufficient that a character try his utmost) reminds me of Frodo's quest to destroy the Ring of Power. The Ring could not have been destroyed, had Frodo and Sam not struggled and suffered the entire long journey to Mordor and Mount Doom. By sheer force of will and blind luck, and Sam's unwavering loyalty, Frodo was able to bring himself to the right place: the Crack of Doom. But at journey's end, Frodo could not actually bring himself to take the final step necessary to destroy the Ring. That required an outside force, one last element of luck, albeit luck shaped by right choices.

I don't know if "Hajime" is a common name in Japanese, but it sounds a lot like the word that Sensei Mark used to use for "Begin!" during karate class.