“And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good.  Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”  –  Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig

Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig, who I wrote about here earlier, died this week at the age of 88 at his home in South Berwick, Maine after a period of failing health.

He will be remembered for his two books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

Zen is a novelistic autobiography that inspired readers in many ways, including those who did their own road trip across America with or without a motorcycle.

Published in 1974, I read it as I was finishing college and the mix of road story, philosophy, Zen and some actual motorcycle maintenance tips inspired me to take a small road trip after graduation of my own.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

I would say the book is a classic, and not of the “underground” type, as it sold well then and seems to continues to find new readers.

Though published in 1974, it echoes a lot of the philosophies and issues that the earlier decade brought forward in America and also the “on the road” vibes of the 1950s. Pirsig used as inspiration a motorcycle trip across the West he took with his son Christopher in 1968.

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

While serving as a soldier in South Korea after WWII, Pirsig encountered the Asian philosophies and he went on to study Hindu philosophy in India. He started a philosophy Ph.D. at the University of Chicago but didn’t continue with it.

He went through a period of hospitalization for mental illness, but after his release he lived in Minneapolis, worked as a technical writer and began writing Zen.

The Zen was real for him. He helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”

He worked on and off on his second book for 17 years. Lila, his look at morals, came out in 1991 and  tells of a journey down the Hudson River in a sailboat by his philosopher-narrator, Phaedrus. He encounters Lila, a troubled woman who is nearing a mental breakdown. This book feels like an attempt to complete the “metaphysics of Quality” system introduced in his first book.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

 

All quotations here from  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Today – April 26, 2017 – is the first supermoon this year, but there is no Full Moon tonight. Can a New Moon be a supermoon? Yes.

Rather than a full supermoon, this is a new supermoon. It will happen again May 25 (the most “super of the year) and June 24.

As I have said before, a supermoon isn’t an astronomical term but a popular term to mark when the Moon is nearest to the Earth (perigee).

By a commonly accepted definition, to be a supermoon it has to come within 225,027 miles (362,146 km) of Earth. and that happens every few months. Besides the three Super New Moons, there will also be s Super Full Moon in December. After that, the following full moons on January 2 and 31, 2018, count as supermoons, too. Additionally, some will call the full moon on January 31, 2018 a Blue Moon.

Here is the caveat for this celestial event: Since you can’t really see a New Moon, you can’t see a  super one either. The Moon will be in the glare of the sun all day long and will rise and set with the Sun.

You will see the Moon’s impact with higher-than-usual tides since all New and Full Moons create bigger tides and perigee makes them even higher. We sometimes hear them referred to as “spring tides.”

Higher spring tides are one way to “see” the New Supermoon. – Photo: Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey (Wikimedia)

Many years ago, I read an article that has stayed with me about a doctor who tried to determine if the soul had weight. Over the years, I have seen that same story retold in various contexts: religious, scientific and New Age pseudoscientific.

You may have seen a film  21 Grams whose title refers to the early 20th-century research of physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall. He attempted to show scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul by recording a loss of body weight immediately following death. His hypothesis was that if any small amount of weight was lost at the moment after death, it was due to the departure of the soul.

MacDougall only had six patients in his experiment and the result he selected from one of them was that there was a loss of “three-fourths of an ounce.” That was, to him, the “weight of the soul” and it has since been popularized through the film and online as “21 grams.”

Though MacDougall’s results were published in the peer-reviewed journal American Medicine, his experiment has met with mostly criticism as sloppy research or even pseudoscience.

First off, MacDougall assumed that any weight loss was an indication of the soul, which is not the territory of science. When I first read about this experiment, my own thought was that since energy cannot be created or destroyed and since the living body does create and hold an electrical charge that can be measured, where does that charge go after death?

Talking about this with a friend, he suggested (only part jokingly) that the energy leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field.  I found later that he is not alone in his belief in The Force as a kind of global soul or energy field that can be tapped by all of us – if we know how. In the Star Wars series, The Force is used for both good and evil, but it is never explained as being the soul. Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

I have done further reading over the years about all this and asked a few real scientists that I taught with at NJIT and it seems like a reasonable answer to my question and my friends answer is that the electrical charge gets grounded.

Our bodies generate electricity and that allows your nervous system to send signals to your brain and control the rhythm of your heartbeat, the movement of blood around your body and more.

The Earth also carries an enormous negative charge and our bodies connect with the Earth’s energy. Without getting too New Age, when you put your bare feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons (those are the good ones) through the soles of your feet. This effect maintains your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called “grounding” or “earthing,” and it is viewed as an antioxidant effect.

Dr. MacDougall was pretty careful for his time. He recorded patient’s exact time of death, total time on the bed, used the most precise scales available, recorded any changes in weight that occurred at the moment of death. He thought about other explanations for weight loss (bodily fluids like sweat and urine, and gases like oxygen and nitrogen) and factored that into his calculations.

The only modern experiments I have ever come across about finding the soul or the energy were using a kind of photography that could see energy fields and attempted to see the energy leaving the body. Those were inconclusive. I just recently found that MacDougall did another experiment in 1911 attempting to photograph the soul when it left a body.

He said (and it was reported in The New York Times then, that doing a dozen experiments, he photographed “a light resembling that of the interstellar ether” in or around patients’ skulls at the moments they died.

Science still has no interest in this line of soul research. I doubt that any research was done using a much larger sample size. There is even some controversy as to when the precise “moment” of death occurs. Is it cellular death, brain death, physical death or heart death?

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured.

Dan Brown even references MacDougall’s experiments in his novel The Lost Symbol. A scientist character placed a dying man in an air-tight capsule, fitted with very sensitive micro weight detectors, and after his death showed a difference in weight “though microscopic, is quite measurable.” The novel’s experiment has some of the same flaws as MacDougall’s experiment.

But wouldn’t it be comforting to prove that we each have a souls that lives on after we die?

We have been considering this idea of a soul for a very long time. Religious, philosophical and mythological traditions often view the soul (perhaps by a different name) as  essence of a living being and it can be mortal or immortal.

In Judeo-Christianity, only human beings have immortal souls. Thomas Aquinas attributed soul/anima to all organisms but argued that only human souls are immortal. Hinduism and Jainism hold that all biological organisms – your pets and the flea on your dog – have souls. Aristotle also believed that. In some philosophies (animism), even non-biological entities – rivers and mountains – have souls.

Science still isn’t interested. I have read that functional neuroimaging has mapped every function once associated with the soul to specific regions and structures of the brain.

Physicists have mapped the connections between subatomic particles and need no spiritual explanations. But they have also said that dark matter makes up more than 80 percent of the universe’s mass, but we haven’t actually seen a single atom of it. That requires at least some non-religious faith.

I agree with Hamlet that still “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Let’s start with me freely admitting that I really like Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. They star in the new film, The Circle, that opens April 28. They are both ridiculously likeable actors and often play likeable characters. Not so in this film.

This is not a film review; it’s a preview. I have seen some trailers and clips. The actors are doing some interviews. I read the book.

Watch the first trailer that was released for the film at the start of 2017 before we continue.

The Circle is the novel by Dave Eggers that the film is based on. In the book, the main character is Mae. She interviews for the dream job at the Circle. It is the world’s most powerful internet company. It is Google + Apple + Facebook + Amazon + whatever other giants come to mind. It is more than any one of these real companies. They are located, of course, on a huge California campus. They connect everything: emails, social media, banking, your purchasing and more.

As with those companies, Circle wants to be your One Platform, your universal operating system, your online home. They appear to want to do good, not evil.

Mae is happy and feels very lucky to be there. What’s not to like? Open-plan office spaces, great dining, clubs, activities, nice dorms if you want to spend nights at work, sports, exercise, parties with famous musicians.

One of their technologies is SeeChange, a very portable camera for easy real-time video that are worn 24/7 by some people, like politicians who want to be transparent. (Think police body cams.)

Mae’s off-campus life starts to fade away, replaced by her work life which is going very well.

I’m not sure how many of the sub-plots survived adaptation. One important one is her romantic connection with a colleague who is mysterious enough that she’s not even sure he is an employee.

Another subplot is about Mae’s father who has multiple sclerosis. She gets him on her health plan which also gets their home wired with SeeChange cameras. Mae even ends up “going transparent.” That is their expression for wearing the camera. It echoes for me with the Scientology term of going “Clear” which is what they call the state of being free of subconscious memories of past trauma (engrams). I don’t know if Eggers intended that connection.

Mae drinks deeply from the company Kool-Aid and gives tours of the corporate campus praising their products and vision. She starts to preach that “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” Remind you of any real companies?

Will Mae’s ambition and idealism be crushed by the Circle, or will she fight the “good fight” for our privacy, democracy, and maintaining our personal memories, history and knowledge? Buy a ticket. Or read the book. (No guarantee the answer will be the same.)

Yes, Internet companies are the bad guys here. How much of our lives do we still own?

I was thinking it was a contemporary Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four when I read the novel. I don’t think this novel will be a “classic” but it was an enjoyable read.

Dave Eggers is an author I discovered  at the turn of the century with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That is a novel about a college senior who loses both of his parents to cancer and then is left to care for his eight-year-old brother.

Eggers is the author of ten books, including  A Hologram for the King, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is also the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company that produces books, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and a monthly magazine, The Believer.

I’ll give Eggers credit for doing some good: McSweeney’s publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to increase awareness of human rights crises around the world; he co-founded 826 National, a network of tutoring centers around the country and ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization that connects students with resources, schools and donors to make college possible.

I see that Tom Hanks is doing a benefit for Scholarmatch this month, so I know some good came out of him meeting Eggers and making The Circle.

Meteor falling – NASA

The annual Lyrid meteor shower is active each year from about April 16 to 25. You might have spotted one the past week, but the peak activity this year is predicted to be tomorrow morning (April 22).

There will be little or no interfering light from the slender waning crescent moon.

The greatest number of meteors will usually fall during the few hours before dawn, but the Lyrid meteor shower is just as unpredictable as any meteor shower.

The shooting stars seem to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the brilliant star Vega. These meteors burn up in the atmosphere about 100 kilometers/60 miles above Earth and Vega lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years, so they just “appear” to come from Lyra. You don’t need to find Lyra in order to see meteors as they are visible in any part of the sky.

We all want to know “the secret.” The big one. The secret of life.  I would never would expect to find it in a book or film.

But there is a book called The Secret that claims to be able to help “in every aspect of your life—money, health, relationships, happiness, and in every interaction you have in the world.”

Wow. That is quite a claim. But wait, there is more.

“By applying the knowledge of The Secret, they bring to light compelling stories of eradicating disease, acquiring massive wealth, overcoming obstacles, and achieving what many would regard as impossible.”

I had heard of the book. It was  a followup to a documentary by the same name in 2006. The book has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 46 languages. It has attracted fans, critics, controversy and parodies.

It re-entered my consciousness via a new podcast called By the Book. The program is self-described as a half reality show, half self-help podcast. Jolenta Greenberg and her skeptical friend Kristen Meinzer (who was on my favorite movie podcast, Movie Date)  choose a self-help book and (try) to follow its precepts for a few weeks and then report back to listeners.

They tried The Secret. Was it life changing?

The Secret presents a concept titled “law of attraction.” This law posits that feelings and thoughts can attract events, feelings, and experiences. That includes things in your house and the workings of the cosmos.

There is an implication that people in positions of power have known this secret and have kept it hidden from the public.

Some of the self-help things Jolenta and Kristen tried are things I have heard from other self-help books and even tried and written about here.

Four of those things to do:

1. Make a daily affirmation. This is the practice of positive thinking and self-empowerment. “A positive mental attitude supported by affirmations will achieve success in anything.” This is a real carefully formatted statement that you write down and repeat to yourself. It is in the present tense, positive, personal and specific. ” I am strong and today I will ask for and get that raise at work.”

2. Keep a gratitude journal. The idea is to write down at least one, if not a list, of positive events at the close of a day and why the events made them happy. Others and even some studies have found benefits from a gratitude journal.

3. According the law of attraction, one way to attract money into your life is to write yourself a check for an amount of money you wish to receive and imagine yourself receiving that amount. There is a lot of visualizing and imagining the things you want in life in The Secret.

4. Create a vision board of the things you want: places you want to go to, things you want to acquire, people in your life, those you want to meet and people who inspire you.

Kristen and Jolenta made fun of the book, but in the end recommended it because a) it seems to help people  b) though it may not bring you everything you want, it may bring a more positive outlook to your life.

Where did this secret come from? It goes back way before the book to what is known as the New Thought philosophy. That is where the law of attraction comes from – a belief that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life. You need to accept the idea that people and their thoughts are both made from “pure energy”, and that through the process of “like energy attracting like energy” a person can improve their own health, wealth and personal relationships.

The New Thought movement grew out of the teachings of Phineas Quimby who is described as a “philosopher, magnetizer and mesmerist.” In other words, he was a wanderer in the land of pseudoscience.

So, I am cynical about finding the secret of it all.  But like the podcasters, I can’t dismiss all the ideas. Give it a try. If it works for you, then you did find the secret.

I believe in the secret as explained by Mitch and Curly in the film City Slickers (which is too easily dismissed as just a comedy).  Here’s the secret in a 3 minute clip.

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