er rat er from paul

Life “Out There”

As our view of the universe deepens and we become aware of more and more solar systems that could harbor some form of life, it seems more likely that one day earthlings will discover “life” — or life will discover us. I wonder what conditions would be required for the former, and what forms that life might take. If life is to discover us, or has already — I’m not ready to speculate on that yet. Hold that thought.

Astronomers have established that there may be between 11 and 40 billion solar systems with life-sustainable planets. I take this to mean general conditions — planets with a reasonable temperature, perhaps the possibility of an atmosphere — though I’m not really sure what constitutes “life-sustainable” in their studies. However, life takes many forms here on earth, and I recall reading that scientists have discovered bacteria living in volcanoes and also deep in the earth and in icy conditions on polar ice caps.

The forms of life are myriad and it seems for life to flourish there must be, in addition to good weather, food and some place to stretch out and live.

Do we take it that life also — to be life — requires some way to reproduce? I think so. We have many ways here on earth. So already for life to be “life” it has to have a certain complexity, adaptability, and self-interest — or whatever it is that causes living things to convert resources, e.g. food, into energy.

Thinking of the forms of life, bacteria, virus, slime molds, insects, plants, animals, others — roughly 9 billion — a key ability they have is to be able to adapt to the environment — or else perish as a species. This suggests that an important quality of life we know it is the genetic structure that changes, because of the environment, because of chance combinations of DNA during reproduction, and because of random changes in the structure.

This raises the question: how likely is it that these key component structures (DNA and RNA) would be found elsewhere? It seems to be a very complex and well-developed, chemically-dependent system. I can’t envision how even over billions of years something like this DNA and RNA could develop, because it seems that for a small building block, such as these, to be optimized, there has to be some feedback from the larger organisms they help create. By “feedback”, I mean there would have to be something on a larger scale than these viruses and molecules that was causing them to be constructed in the first place. E.g. God or life elsewhere that already exists.

DNA is no Lego block. It has code and it has an elegant scheme and set of rules for combining with other DNA to create new organisms. Although, I see this disturbing piece of software. I guess it is possible to tinker with and clone life. But the original engineering work can’t have just been chance. Perhaps I already answered the question, and “life” is just an experiment of some super intelligence. Or God.


These Times – July 18, 2018

When I was growing up, with the exception of a few times — when in second grade we were told in school to line up facing the walls in case Russia attacked with atomic bombs, and when Kennedy was assassinated — there was a sense of order in these United States. People in government did their jobs. They represented the democratic people of the United States, the best and strongest nation in the world (we were taught). “I pledge allegiance to the flag…etc.” as we learned by rote.

The scales began falling from my eyes gradually. I was anti-Nixon, anti-war, anti-Establishment in the 70’s. Glad to see justice meted out to Nixon, after the Watergate fiasco. In the 80’s and 90’s I was married and raising a family — working to make money to “provide”. I don’t regret that. But I certainly did have blinders on. I was just glad to be able to do what my wife Camilla and I could do so that our children could grow up safe and well provided for.

I had a glimpse of our broken medical system when Camilla was dealing with breast cancer. Fortunately, we had insurance through my work and didn’t have to pay the astronomical bills. I recall one doctor saying that Camilla’s emotional distress one day was “ruining her day”. And another doctor covering for that horrible doctor’s behavior. Doctors have each other’s back. There is so much wrong. Don’t get me started about insurance!

But when I became, what I guess you would call, a “Democratic Socialist” was when I read on wikileaks about the CIA’s adventures around the world. Particularly stinging to me, as a former journalist, was to read a CIA report from the 50’s about their work in Iran, and how they planted a story “with the usual contact” at the New York Times. Until then, I had thought (for the most part) that journalists — as the “Fourth Estate” — were immune from corruption and were/are a vital part of our system, along with the other branches of government, judicial, legislative and executive.

So “we” — through the CIA — have been meddling in other countries’ elections and internal affairs for decades. Hmmm. That was a shocker. Then when the emails from the Democratic National Committee were released, showing that Hilary Clinton’s campaign had sabotaged Bernie Sander’s chances to win the nomination through skullduggery from the head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, I was completely flabbergasted (and continue to be) that so many Democrats don’t care about that, or attribute it to Russian intervention and so discount it. I believe these emails tell the truth, and I don’t care where the truth comes from — the truth is the truth. As a result of this, I can’t be a Democrat any longer, at least until there are major changes in how the party operates. I remain deeply suspicious of big time politics and big time politicians.

Back in the 70’s there was Walter Cronkite, telling us about what happened each day on the CBS Evening News, concluding each broadcast with “And that’s the way it is.” I dare say that nowadays, in the era of “fake news”, most level-headed people don’t believe that anybody really knows exactly how “it is”. Is that a step in the right direction? I believe it is important — especially now — to question our sources, to wonder what motivations might lie behind reports. Now, for example, there are far more “news sources” than there used to be. These include folks like Breitbart and Infowars and many others with obvious or not-so-obvious “left-wing” or “right-wing” agendas. Many sites nowadays take a report and then “colorize” it to emphasize certain things they would like to highlight — if not distort — to make points that support their political or other agenda. Life in the “information age” is difficult, because much of the “information” is in reality noise — i.e. information-less content.

Nothing is simple anymore. (Was it ever?) Now even the Solar System — our solar system — has been shown to have qualities of chaos that we didn’t imagine before. I always thought the planets revolve ad infinitum. Sure, one day the Sun will explode. But that’s far far far in the future — probably long enough that if there are any “people” around then, they will have “made plans” 🙂

But they found other planets beyond Pluto — first shock. Then yesterday I learned that there are new moons of Jupiter — 76 or so. And some of them are revolving the WRONG WAY! One is on a collision course with the others.

Chaos reigns. What can we do about it? Perhaps learn to live with it, and accept that when our (personal) “lights go out”, it might be a good thing. 🙂



Django Festival 2018

The Genesis of my trip to the Django Festival this year traces back to a convoluted wish that my marriage would survive. Last year, in Germany I described the festival to my new friend Wolfgang. My German wife and I had been to Samois in 2016. It was her most lovely birthday present to me a 1/2 year before I proposed and a year before we married — something we now regret. Agnes had rented a “Wohnmobile” (mobile home) and we drove, with her lovely Labrador Frida, to the festival south of Paris, stopping in Trier, Belgium along the way.

Things went “south” with our marriage, but I always remembered what a wonderful time Agnes and I had on that trip. She drove most of the way through the tiny, twisting streets of the Belgian and French towns. So when I talked about it with Wolfgang, who is a fantastic photographer and retired geography teacher, he was intrigued. And I thought, this is crazy but it could be fun to go again — with Wolfgang. So we made tentative plans back in early 2017.

Fast forward to this year. Marriage continued dissolving, but the festival plans gelled. Samois — people still call it — is a festival in honor of Django Rheinhardt, the gypsy guitarist who became famous because of his many recordings with Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of France. He integrated gypsy style music with swing from the 20s and 30s and had a great career in Europe, even touring in the US with Duke Ellington’s band. He ended up living and dying, eventually, in Samois, a small village south of Paris on the Seine river. Django wrote a song, “Peche a’la Mouche” (Fly-fishing) based on one of his favorite past-times in Samois.

The festival has been popular since the 1980s, featuring some of the best Manouche (gypsy) players and bands. In the last few years, the festival organizers have attempted to reach a broader audience, and thus have invited non-Manouche musicians. The festival grew. And for the last few years has been in Fontainebleau, next to the massive palace of Napolean 1, Louis the 14th, a Pope, and many other people from French royalty. This year, the headliner was George Benson, a guitarist that probably all of the Manouche guitarists revere.

“Manouche” is a word I use because I have heard many in the tradition prefer it to “Gypsy” or “Gipsy” which has some negative connotations for some people.

Samois is a charming little town, full of stone houses, standing on the slopes of the Seine. If you wander up the streets, as Agnes and Frida and I did in 2016, you pass an ancient Roman bath — a 4 x 2 meter stone pool by the street. I had to help Frida out after she jumped in (typical Labrador).

This time, Wolfgang and I didn’t camp. We stayed in a very cheap Airbnb in Avon, halfway between Fontainebleau and the Samourea camp, where the serious musicians hang out to talk and play music from mid-afternoon (when they wake up) to the next morning. In fact, many of the campers never buy tickets to the festival at Fontainebleau. They just crave the jamming at Samoureau. There is also another camp, Petite Barbeau (little woods) just down the river, where musicians also camp and play into the wee hours. Agnes and I had stopped some Gypsies in 2016 asking for a recommendation. They told us the serious Gypsy players all camp in Petite Barbeau because there they aren’t expected to play all night and can get some rest. We found out though that the other campers often played all night. That year, we saw Dorado Schmidt and Hono Winterstein hanging out at Petite Barbeau, but indeed (at least when we saw them) they didn’t have guitars in their hands.

Wolfgang and I drove his car from Soest, leaving about 10 a.m. Thursday. George Benson was to play that night at 10:30 p.m. and the trip was about 7 hours. As with my trip with Agnes, we depended on outdated maps — a continuing source of frustration as Belgium and France have so many tiny roads with multiple names e.g. A4, E42 etc. Oh well. I nearly crashed when I was driving in Belgium, recovering from a trip down the wrong road. It was a bitter pill to swallow, as I think of myself as a good driver. But Germans (and I think most Europeans) have to take a year or more of driver’s education. I have to admit, Wolfgang was a much superior driver.

Finally we arrived. Wolfgang and I were both worn out. When he found out my Airbnb choice was 3 km from the festival, he erupted, complaining that he wanted to be able to walk to the festival. He muttered in German that he thought I couldn’t understand, about how much better it would be to have a hotel room within walking distance. But I did understand. Then it was my turn to explode and call him a “big baby”. Things got worse. He wouldn’t listen to my GPS directions to the festival, and snatched up his own smartphone to reconnoiter. I had had enough and said, “Now you are starting to piss me off!”. Then I jumped out of the car, holding onto the keys to the Airbnb gate and our house. I ran into him later at the festival in Fontainebleau and we worked things out.

Enough chaos. I realized I was feeling sorry for myself for not being there with Agnes. Wolfgang was tired from the driving. So “geht” understandings between friends. Sheesh.

So we caught George Benson, and Wolfgang took some incredibly good pictures and videos. We got back after midnight. Our Airbnb hosts, Myriam and Benoit, were a lovely young couple, she a piano teacher, and he an organist. Benoit had a fabulous organ setup in his living room. He subbed in churches when the regular organist was sick or otherwise unavailable. They only did the Airbnb thing to supplement their incomes as musicians. I understood.

The next day, Wolfgang and I walked to Fontainbleau Palace, a bit of a hoof — 3 km — but good exercise, and then we did the self-tour. What a fabulous, and fabulously large palace. Opulence beyond belief. I took lots of pictures of the furniture for my sons Owen and Noah, cabinet makers in Milford, Ohio, to check out. Lots of gilt gold, carved wood. Stuff they don’t do much these days.

Then we went to the festival. We heard Bireli Lagren, Stochelo Rosenburg, William Brunard. I checked out the guitar booths luthiers had setup. I ran into my friend Ken Allday from Louisville, Ky, who had come there on a lark by himself, though he has several friends in the GJ music community. He is a great young guitarist.

I contacted my friend Sasha, who also had come over for the festival from Kentucky. Sasha was one of those who only go to Samoureau to jam. I met him at the campground that night. He was accompanied by his “driver” Martin McFie, a fascinating, friendly retired English industrialist who lives in Hiltonhead, and summers in Nice, France, and now just goes around reviewing live music and writing books. Martin was driving an old London taxi, vintage 1953 — my vintage also.

Saturday, while walking around the campground with Ken, we encountered Rino Van Hoojidonk, who is a musician and luthier. He made my guitar, which I decided not to bring with me this trip of 11 days. It was his 26th Selmer-style guitar. I filmed Ken and Rino playing “J’Attendrai”, made famous by Django and the Hot Club of France.

Both Sasha and Ken let me play their guitars, so I had some experience jamming at Samoureau. Also I tried a couple guitars at the Fontainebleau festival from Cyril Gaffiero, a French guitar-maker, and AJL, another luthier, from Finland. Sasha kept texting me asking me to ask the AJL guys questions about the Montmartre guitar that he was interested in. I sent him various pictures I took of the guitar, with a curly maple back. The AJL sales guy, Kimmo, smiled when I told him “hello from Sasha”. Sasha has many friends.

Saturday afternoon, I saw Ken and he was haggard looking. He said he had jammed at Samoureau until 6 a.m. That’s what many do, primarily the young. Ken seemed to be having a great, classic Samoureau experience.

I would arrive back around 3:30 or 4 a.m. at the Airbnb, call Wolfgang, who had stayed at the Fontainebleau festival until 11:30 or so, making photographs. He would let me in the outer gate and then the front door. We slept in the same bed, which I thought would be ok, since he is European and uses a breathing apparatus for sleep apnea — and also it was only $155 for 3 nights. Later, I was to learn that another friend of Sasha’s also had a much bigger private Airbnb, complete with a pool table, for the same price. Oh well. Our hosts were charming and I didn’t regret it, even when the first train ripped by about 30 meters from our open window on the first night. “Oh…” I thought to myself, fresh from my slumbers. “That’s why it’s so cheap.” I was used to trains from Agnes’ house in Soest, that has two tracks 5 meters behind the back of her garden. You get used to it.

Wolfgang got a great video of Bireli Lagren, William Brunard and Stochelo Rosenberg playing “Djangology”. It went viral after I posted it on Facebook. The view and music quality were both so good.

I enjoyed walking around Samoureau late our last night (Saturday), looking for a good jam. Borrowing Sasha’s guitar and playing with some Gypsy guys who were trying to sell two guitars. After we finished a song, the older guy (30-ish) said something to me that I didn’t understand. My guess was either he was complimenting me (unlikely) or saying I was playing too loud (more likely because another guy from Germany actually put his hand on Sasha’s guitar while he was playing and told him he was too loud — I guess it’s a loud guitar). Then a nice young lady from California wanted to play a couple tunes with us on her violin. In between Martin would talk about Plato, how he had run a shipping company that drove trucks through Germany, and owned a ship that plied the east coast of the US, how he learned how to play golf, and quit after his first shot was a hole-in-one. Very friendly guy, and quite a talker. Generous also, as he agreed to pick me up and drive me to the Airbnb in the middle of the night one night.

On the last night, around 3:30 a.m., I started walking/staggering towards the Airbnb from Samoureau. Only a few cars. Nice view of the dark Seine as I crossed the bridge. In the morning 4 hours laster (we had to be out by 10 a.m.) we grabbed some great coffee and a croissant, and ran into Dario Napoli, Italian guitarist, who was there with his band to play Sunday. Ciao, and we started our journey back to Soest.





Chicken or Egg?


“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is a question that stands for a whole class of paradoxical questions which we have agreed to let float, unsolved, in our collective consciousness. But I don’t think we should settle for that.

Plutarch was one of the first to wrestle with the question. In The Symposiacs Firmus argues the egg came first,  because it is less developed, and less developed things precede more-developed things. And Senecio then argues that only the more perfect can produce the less perfect — and not the other way around, therefore the chicken produced the egg.

Wikipedia records arguments from scientists that one particular bird had some DNA that caused a shell-like covering to surround a newborn. So technically the bird came first.

I am not ready to lay the question to rest, because it seems unlikely that any creature that was the “First” of it’s kind, could have the ability to reproduce for the first time. In other words, when was the last time you made something that could reproduce itself, or at least something like itself? Reproduction is one of the key qualities of a living thing — the ability to produce offspring. It is not easy to make something reproduceable. We can write software programs that do something like that. But compared to living things, these creations are extremely crude. Some living things can produce more than one offspring at a time — even humans can do this. The DNA is combined and off you go.

My feeling is that the existence of reproduction is just another indicator that life was placed on Earth, as an experiment, by some superior intelligence. We are currently experimenting with Artificial Intelligence, and have found, to our surprise, that some of the algorithms we have created have caused our robots to start learning things on their own that we didn’t anticipate. That is a crude twist and reflection on what we, as humans, are doing today. Originally I would say, we grew from the muck — the original chemical compounds and primary structures that some intelligence placed on earth. Now we are to the point of trying to create crude structures that approximate ourselves. Somewhere, someone is laughing at us.

I think time is something that is completely relative to the normal lifespan of the creature(s) experiencing time. For example, insects typically live from days to a few years. Their turnover is quick, and their DNA is likely to change faster than for a species like ours. For a superior intelligence that may have learned how to not decompose — age — time may be irrelevant. Perhaps the “experiment” of life on planet Earth is merely a term’s worth of a lab exercise. See what grows, what changes, what developments are made, what social structures evolve, and then shut the whole thing down.

Related links:

Cornell self-modeling robot that teaches itself to walk (depicted at top of article). This robot incidentally was found to have a neuron that recognized its scientists’ faces. Spooky.

The Backwards Human Entelechy

Entelechy is the animating force that turns life-less matter into a living thing. We are surrounded by substance and our bodies twitch and respond to impulses that afflict our senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing, vision. Our mind makes sense of these, sometimes automatically, sometimes with consciousness and sometimes without, as when we have an involuntary response touching a hot object.

The purpose of me writing this is to talk about an experience I have had several times when waking from a dream.

My dreams have a story, for want of a better word. There is some continuity and development. It may be about various situations. At some key point in the story, there is some type of sound, and then I wake up. The strange thing is that the sound has been coming from something in the “real” world. And it comes at the very end of the story, which appears to have been developing for some time before I wake up. The sound becomes the connection between the “real” world and the dream story I was having until I woke up.

For example, the other morning, I had my humidifier running. Periodically it makes a gurgling sound, perhaps once an hour, as water drains from the tank into the reservoir at the bottom. I was having a dream, and at a certain point, one of the characters in the dream started to talk in a herky jerky way, “It didn’t matter….etc.” The sound was just like this gurgling. In fact, as I woke up, I realized that gurgling humidifier was what I was hearing — the exact sound of the voice in my dream.

Other examples have been a loud explosion or the dropping of a heavy object outside my room, coming at the end of a dream in which after some development of a story line, I fall to the pavement off a tall building, or somebody throws a hand grenade.

The important thing is that the sound, linked to the outside world, is always the last thing that happens in the dream. So it seems as if the dream story is spontaneously created — either very very rapidly constructed in response to the noise, or actually created backwards, starting with the resultant noise, and then backing up into the story — as if writing a story from the last page first.

I wonder a few things about this.

a) is this the true nature of time? That we only are accustomed to seeing it one-way: cause then effect, but in reality it can flow the other way too?

b) If the brain can construct these “stories” instantaneously backwards, what else are we “perceiving” that is in reality (whatever “reality” means) something that starts with an effect, and then we construct the cause?

Here are some related links:

A Paper on Backwards Causation

Wikipedia “Retrocausality”

Junior Engineers

If I were to try to build a robot that could walk, or roll, around a room, avoiding objects, I might start with some type of model car chassis. I would need some electric motors, probably, or just one. Then I would have to make some type of sensor system, perhaps some tactile ones: plungers hooked up to electric switches from Radio Shack, or more ambitiously, a diode or viewing system  — a camera that would require a program, a computer and software, to recognize shapes and respond appropriately.

There would be a “master” program that would react to the events generated by the sensing system(s). Some kind of logic to control speed and direction — turning angles. The master program would have to “know” how to get out of a corner, or what to do when running into an object. Maybe backup, turn right 45 degrees and try again.

And how fast to go so it didn’t destroy itself.

If it was desired for this robot to be able to do anything useful, beyond reacting to things, it would be necessary to program for this, also. And perhaps attach useful machinery. For example, there already are vacuum machine robots that move around the living room carpet, cleaning as they go.

After some time the robot, if it were ever completed successfully, would break down, run out of batteries, or a part would break off, or it would fall down a staircase, or run into some horrible demise, unforeseen by its creator: thrown by a child, chewed by a dog, stepped on by a guest? And eventually it would be forgotten.

How different are living creations. 

There are more examples than I can cite, but one will suffice to make a point. The Paramecium (

This is a microscopic, water-born, lozenge-shaped animal that motors around using cilia (hairs) attached to its elastic outer shell. The cilia act in an oar-like fashion, with a brisk forward “stroke”, and a gentle recovery backstroke to get ready for the next stroke. The numerous cilia “oars” work together in a wavelike fashion.

A Paramecium, when it runs into something, backs up, reversing the direction of its stroke. Then it retries the passage. It continues this attempt/retry until the object is passed. In the water things move around a lot, so apparently this strategy, encoded in its DNA, works well. 

A Paramecium has other smaller sets of cilia which sweep bacteria food into its mouth. It has a digestive system which uses enzymes that turn the bacteria into energy to keep it alive and moving. The food waste is propelled out the anal cavity. It has a system to regulate water intake and outflow, also. Apparently, merely by eating what it eats and being eaten by its predator, Didinium, Paramecium fulfills an important role in the food chain that helps keep life rolling along.

All of this, so far, represents a light-years advance on the robot I was considering building — and all in a package of 50 to 330 micrometers in length — much smaller than I am capable of bread-boarding.

But there is more. The Paramecium can reproduce itself in two ways: either on its own, spontaneously splitting into two; or by combining with another Paramecium of a similar type.

Needless to say, our human-designed machines are not programmed to reproduce and thus create a new generation of themselves. Cars, washing-machines, smart-phones. No. Fortunately.

Let all of us humans who build things, or use things other humans build, and think we live in an enlightened age of technological wonder, just take a step back and literally apologize in all humility to the Supreme Creator of Nature, the Master Engineer.

We should continue to study life, like the protozoologists Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Christian Huygens did in the 17th century, when they discovered the Paramecium.

We’re not so smart.


Daily I walk my son’s dog, Remy, to the Little Miami River near me. It’s a past-time, a respite from her cage for Remy, and a bit of exercise for my arthritic knee.

It is always refreshing, and I realize, always new in some way. Gradually the weather has warmed up, and the once barren, cold (and frequently muddy) patches along the trail have become green. Buttercups erupted first. Now grass and weeds have grown up and the trail has nearly closed off with growth.

The river itself has varied from a brown torrent that came up over part of the path at one point, to a dry puddle in one of the forks. There was a tire stuck on an island one day. A few days later the rising waters buried it, or swept it away.

As I looked into the river one day I realized that I was looking at a concrete representation of an abstract idea: “change”. A river is change happening right in front of your eyes. At any given moment, it seems to be a constant, and in fact, when you reflect on a particular river, the Mississippi, the Little Miami, the Amazon, it is something that’s been around for a long, long time — longer than any one of us in fact. Yet, daily, it changes. In less than a day, it can change. Once dry, rocky channels become filled with fast-flowing, roiling, muddy water. Days later, a vibrant channel becomes a pond as that particular channel drops its level to  a point that it no longer flows back to the main stream. It becomes stagnant, putrid, fishy-smelling. Then just a rocky place again.

But the main stream itself flows constantly — before I and Remy arrive, and after we have left — all night carrying water from points north to the Ohio River, then to the Mississippi, then to the Gulf of Mexico. The river is a process. It is entropy in motion, water seeking a lower level.

And as the water moves, it carries bits of debris, natural and man-made. Concrete blocks somehow, apparently very slowly, roll downstream. Tires, clothes, water bottles, plastic strips. Some get deposited in trees that sprout up in the higher boundaries of the river. And they stay there. Tree limbs and snakes get washed downstream.

The stuff that sails past, animals and trash, that is just temporary — unless you are an animal or a canoeist or a piece of trash, or a bug on a floating limb — flotsam and jetsam.

But to behold change in action — that is a wonderful thing. In our lives, with our friends and loved ones, we are often so close that we don’t realize the changes of the rivers of our lives as they are happening. It’s only when we can’t visit for a long time, and then we renew an old friendship, or see someone after a long time that we can appreciate what time has wrought.

If we could only see the waters of our lives moving, right in front of our faces, how riveting and blessed — and perhaps scary — would that feel.