The Lost Lightning Bug

Part 1: Abigail

Gail was bored. It was still only July, and (as crazy as this sounds) she was already beginning to look forward to sixth grade. Not that she minded school so much, really. It’s just that she had expected more from summer. What had she done last year? Gail couldn’t seem to remember exactly what she did, but she’d had fun, she was sure of it. Yes, there was the county fair. It was coming up sometime (soon?) And there were few trips to the cousins, a tradition which was about the same this year as last. Yet Gail still felt that this was the slowest, emptiest, boringest summer ever. She just wanted it to be over.

The sun had set, and Gail decided to go out to the pond. Perhaps the fireflies would be out – in fact they probably would be. She packed a basket with provisions: a few cookies, a small mason jar of milk, her flashlight, and a shawl. There was an old wooden bench by the placid water, where she sat down to have her snacks. Sure enough, the lightning bugs were flitting about in the reeds along the shore. Believing the house was far out of earshot, Gail began to sing to the tiny glowing insects. Made up songs full of flowers and honey, cookies and milk, Spring and Fall.

As she sang, she unconsciously began flicking the button on the flashlight, keeping the rhythm to her mildly silly verse. This went on for several minutes. Singing softly, flashing the light, in a sort of soporific meditation in the diminishing warmth of the post-twilight summer evening. After a while, Gail noticed that a few of the fireflies had flown over to her. They were quite near, in fact. This was something new! As an experiment, the girl turned the flashlight completely off, and watched. The lightning bugs slowly meandered away, back to their grassy homes.

How interesting! Gail began flashing the light again. Several fireflies, indeed, made their way in her direction once more. After a few more experiments, it was clear that this was a thing: the bugs were attracted to the glow. It was a very short leap of logic to reach the conclusion that, if these things were easily called, they could be easily caught, as well. A few minutes later, Gail had determined that she could coax a firefly to land on her shawl (now draped over her arm) and from there it was a simple matter of scooping it up in the mason jar.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” She had abandoned everything at the bench and was running to the house with the jar. “I’ve got a lightning bug! I got one, I GOT one!” Dad was already at the back door, holding it open for her as she blazed through the pantry into the kitchen. “I’m naming him ‘Rodney’,” she announced, her face beaming in obvious joy, “but we can call him ‘Rod’,” pausing, “Lightning Rod, get it?”

Dad laughed at the joke, and admitted it was a fine name. “We need to poke some holes in the top, so it has some air, ok?” About that time, mom came on the scene, wondering what the commotion was about. She stood assessing the situation for a moment.

“Abigail,” mom began, “are you sure you are ready to keep a pet? Do you know how to take care of a glow worm?” Gail stopped what she was doing for a moment, and said, “First, Rod is a lightning bug, not any kind of worm. Also, he isn’t a pet – he’s my friend! And I think Rod and I can figure it out.” She turned to dad. “I’m calling Kelli – can Kelli come over?”

Thus began an impromptu sleepover, with Gail’s best friend Kellianne. Really, Kelli was the only school friend she’d seen during the summer, on account of the fact that she was the only one who lived close by. The two girls disappeared into Gail’s room and were not heard from again that night. After breakfast, Kelli stayed around most of the morning. There was talk of catching more fireflies, but Gail was set on having only Rod, and Kelli would have to find her own.

Three days later, tragedy struck: Rodney was missing.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Gail came bursting into the kitchen, empty jar tenuously held in emotionally drained fingers, “Rodney is MISSING!”

“Oh, no!” Dad was visibly concerned, “What happened?”

Mom was at the table, as well. “When did you last see him?”

“Well,” sobbed Gail, “Rod was tired, so we went to bed early. This morning, he was GONE!”

There was a bit of a pause. Mom and dad looked at each other for a long moment.  Then dad responded, “Perhaps he got up early?” Gail nodded, willing to accept any explanation. Dad continued, “Yes. That’s probably it. Was there food in the jar?”

Gail seemed surprised at the question. “Food?”

“Well, ya. A guy’s gotta eat, you know? Perhaps Ron went looking for something to munch on.”

More tears were starting to gush, when mom interjected, “He meant Rod, honey.” Then turning to dad with a stern glare that was somehow starkly impassive, “Daddy meant Rod.”

“Of course,” dad continued, sheepish, “Rodney! I meant Rod.” Fewer tears now. “Perhaps he was just hungry, and got lost on his way back from the, err, garden?”

“So he’s lost!!!” Gail was in full cry, at this point. “He’s goooonnnne!”

“Hang on, honey,” dad had his arm around Gail’s shoulder by now. “I think I know how to get Rodney home.”

“Hmw?” The question was slightly muffled, as Gail was wiping her nose on dad’s shoulder.

“Well, I happen to know that fireflies love apples. Perhaps, if we were to put a bit of apple in the jar, your friend will find his way home!”

Mom jumped in again, saying, “Holes. We will need to fix the holes in the lid so he can’t get out again.”

Dad nodded. “Yes! Rodney obviously got out because the holes were too big. We’ll replace the lid, too – with smaller holes in it.”

Gail was satisfied with this plan. So much, so, in fact, that she immediately wriggled out of dad’s hug and ran to the counter, picking through the apples for the very best, ripest, tastiest looking apple she could find.

Part 2: Alec[Author’s note: Please imagine rewinding sounds as we back up three days.]

Gail was bored. Just by looking at his daughter, Alec could tell that she was sad and frustrated. The troubling thing was, why? They were doing all the same fun stuff they always had done – trips to the river, new summer clothes, sleepovers with Kelli, family picnics, watching the off-season practices at the college field – none of it was working. The county fair was coming up this weekend, but Gail just didn’t seem to be excited about it. Not like last year, anyway. This summer was packed with all of the usual activities, yet Alec was watching his little girl mope about as though there was nothing at all to do.

Even now, from the kitchen window, Alec could see the slumped shoulders and bowed head, as her feet swung gently beneath the bench at the pond. The shawl he’d put in her basket lay next to her, along with the now empty jar and the cookie plate. Gail was singing softly to herself. Alec could almost hear the words, but not quite. He was sure she was making it up as she went, though. That would be just like her, using her creativity to keep herself occupied. Yet, somehow, dad knew it wasn’t enough.

Gail was flicking the flashlight off and on now. “What in the heck is she doing?” Alec thought. He smiled, and continued to watch, entranced at the inscrutable activities of his child. After some time, the singing stopped, and no light. Then, the flashing beam skipped across the pond again for a minute or so. Then it stopped. Clearly, she was up to something. Was she trying to scare off a racoon, or perhaps a skunk? No, that wouldn’t be it. Gail knew how to calmly move away from wild animals. His fatherly amusement grew as the cycle of flashing light and darkness continued.

He was wiping down the kitchen counter, and putting away the last remaining evidence of dinner, when Gail’s raised voice commanded his attention. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” She had abandoned everything at the bench and was running to the house with the jar. “I’ve got a lightning bug! I got one, I GOT one!”

Alec met his daughter at the back door, a brief spike in adrenaline already fading as he saw she was ok. She held up the mason jar, which, in addition to traces of milk, contained the insect.

“I’m naming him ‘Rodney’,” Gail continued, “but we can call him ‘Rod’,” pausing, “Lightning Rod, get it?”

Alec had to stifle a snort as he laughed. Clever Gail! Of course, she would come up with a catchy name! He nodded his head merrily in agreement and said, “Yes, honey, I think that’s a fine name! We need to poke some holes in the top, so it has some air, ok?”

Marche walked briskly through the kitchen door, slowing her pace as she saw the work that Alec and Gail were doing to fix up the jar. Her look turned to one of mild concern. “Abigail,” she began, “are you sure you are ready to keep a pet? Do you know how to take care of a glow worm?

Gail stopped what she was doing for a moment, heaved a dramatic sigh and said, “First, Rod is a lightning bug, not any kind of worm.” She rolled her eyes emphatically and continued. “Also, he isn’t a pet – he’s my friend!” Indignant look, hands on her hips now. “And I think Rod and I can figure it out.” She turned back to Alec. “I’m calling Kelli – can Kelli come over?”

There was nothing else for it. By the time Kelli showed up, Gail had Rodney’s glass home enshrined atop her dresser, surrounded with decorations and a few flowers picked from the planter by the front door. Alec and Marche left the girls alone (or perhaps the girls deserted the adults – it’s a matter of perspective.) Before bed, Marche asked, “Are you going to tuck Abigail in? You usually do, even when Kelli’s here.”

“I was debating that very question,” Alec answered. “It kinda feels like I shouldn’t. I don’t know, it’s like I’ve been replaced by a lampyrid.”

“Perhaps you have!” Marche laughed, Alec joining in with only a slight delay.

Two days later, tragedy struck: Rodney was dead.

It was late at night. Alec was standing in the bedroom doorway. He held out the jar, now sporting a ribbon and several stickers, for Marche to examine. He said, “I’m going to replace him tonight, before she wakes up. I’m getting my shoes on and going out to catch another one right now.”

Marche rolled her eyes, and said, “Oh my god, Alec!” She was simultaneously laughing and looking annoyed. “You can’t protect her from her own mistakes! She decided she could handle this all on her own, and didn’t want to talk it through. She didn’t feed the thing, now it’s dead. She’s got to learn from that.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Alec was torn. “I mean, it’s just a bug, after all. How sad could she get, really? She’ll forget about it by the time we go to the fair on Saturday.”

For a moment, Marche chuckled, but it was a dry laugh and she was more serious when she answered. “No, Alec. She won’t. She’ll be very sad, and probably for a while. She’ll feel a twang of guilt every time she sees a mason jar, and that will certainly last for weeks. Maybe longer. She’ll probably want to get him a Christmas card and mail it to heaven.” She added with another dry chuckle.

“So… I’m confused. You make it sound bad.” He paused. Marche said nothing, so he went on. “I know she’ll be really bummed out. I can fix this. I’m going out to the pond!”

“Alec,” Marche sighed deeply, “you can’t always fix things for Abigail.” She shifted to a lighter tone. “Yes, she’s very attached to that stupid bug. It’s hard to explain, but you need to let her go through this.”

“You mean the grieving process.” It was a statement.

“No. Well, yes.” She slowed down a bit, picking her words. “Your daughter is shedding her tiny childhood feelings and starting to experience big ones. Like losing your baby teeth – it takes time.”

Alec was silent.

“She needs to learn how to chew on her adult emotions. You can’t take that from her.”

Alec had been sitting on the corner of the bed, examining the jar. “Fine, then,” he said, standing. “Rodney escaped.” With that, he opened the jar, dumped the dead bug into the wastebasket, and went to put the jar back in Gail’s room.

The next morning, Marche and Alec were silently drinking coffee. There was an unspoken question waiting patiently with them, like an invisible cat coiling its legs to pounce. Alec knew Marche was right; Marche was certain Alec could not maintain the charade; both of them wondered how Alec’s little “escaped bug” compromise would work out. The little bird entered the room and scared the cat away.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Gail came bursting into the kitchen, empty jar tenuously held in her limp, emotionally drained fingers, “Rodney is MISSING!”

There were looks back and forth. For a fleeting second, Marche thought about responding with something like, “I’m sorry honey. Here, have some toast and jam.” Or maybe adopt a sardonic attitude and say, “Oh, wow! Perhaps you should have been more thorough in locking up your victim!” But she refrained, and she waited, with her eye on Alec and his suddenly pale complexion.

“Oh, no!” Alec was visibly concerned, “What happened?”

Marche played along. “When did you last see him?” she asked.

“Well,” Gail was sobbing now. Alec reached out to take the jar, thinking the girl would drop it – but she clung it to her breast and continued, “Rod was tired, so we went to bed early. This morning, he was GONE!”

There was a bit of a pause. Marche and Alec had talked about this. The plan was to offer comfort and move on as quickly as possible. Alec ventured a postulation. “Perhaps he got up early?” Gail nodded. She was clearly brightening up with this idea, so Alec continued, “Yes. That’s probably it. Was there food in the jar?”

Gail seemed surprised at the question. “Food?”

Marche could almost feel the moment when Alec’s resolve came crashing down. She watched as Alec unfolded a plan to set out some food, and she knew – without any doubt – that Rodney would indeed return that night.


Sure enough, the next day, Rodney was back. Gail never asked him where he had been, or what he had been doing. It’s not that she didn’t care, either. Gail felt that, deep down, she already knew the answer. It turned out that Rodney actually did like bits of freshly cut apple, and he fared quite well for some time. A couple of nights later, Kelli caught a firefly, too. His name turned out to be “Sparky,” and he never wandered off.

After a few weeks, Gail and Kelli decided that their tiny friends would probably be happier back at the pond, with all of the other lightning bugs – Sparky and Rodney’s own friends and family. As the summer had worn on, there were becoming noticeably fewer lights among the reeds and over the water. It was definitely time. So in the late August twilight, there stood mom, dad, Gail, Kelli and about a dozen toy bears, dogs and unicorns. All were gathered around the bench by the pond to open the jars and release the lightning bugs. Gail hushed them all and paused for a few words.

“Rodney,” she said, “the once lost lightning bug, and Sparky, the brightest firefly we’ve ever known,” she stopped, reaching down into the basket for a paper plate that mom and dad hadn’t yet noticed. It had writing on it, and it was taped to what looked like a single chopstick, probably pilfered from a kitchen drawer. Gail and Kelli walked the few steps to the edge of the water, and together they ceremoniously stuck it in the ground, like a small signpost.

Gail started her little speech over from the beginning. “Rodney,” she said, “the lost lightning bug, who returned to us, and Sparky, the brightest firefly we’ve ever known,” she paused for effect, “we now mem… memory…”

“Memorialize…?” said dad.

“Yes. That. We memorialize your names with the declaration that this is to be known as the ‘Lightning Rod and Sparky Pond,’ to forever remind us of our most enjoyable friendship this summer!” The two girls opened the jars. The fireflies flew out and, as best as Alec could tell, turned to wave goodbye before buzzing off over the swampy shore.

The deed was done. The stuffed animals were gathered. Everyone headed back to the house.

“So, you know school starts Monday, right?” asked Alec as they walked.

“Ya,” said Gail. “When is that, exactly?”

“That’s three days.”

“Wow,” said Gail. “Summer went by so fast!”

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The Two Hedgehogs

Once upon a time, there were two hedgehogs.   One was tall, the other was quick, and both enjoyed eating very much.  Quick Hedgehog would share recipes with Tall Hedgehog, who would say things like, “That sounds pretty cool, but I need the measurements if I am going to make it.”  Other times, Tall would bring food to Quick’s house, and Quick would say, “This is technically pretty good, but your presentation sucks!”

The two hedgehogs loved each other’s company and discovered that they each learned a lot from cooking and eating together.  When Quick moved to a city far away, Tall was lost for a time.  But not for long – the two hedgehogs always compared notes and continued to share their recipes by mail.  Both of them knew that this was not just about cooking.  Both of them knew that, as long as they each believed in each other, Everything would be Ok.

Ten years went by.  Then another ten years.  And then another.  In three decades, the two hedgehogs had each earned a few grey hairs, and had many adventures.  Quick became a farmer, because that’s what he had always been anyway.  Tall became an engineer, for the very same reason.  You see, when Everything is going to be Ok, you will eventually find out what you already are, and you will become that.  The two hedgehogs learned this, together, in separate parts of the world.

One day, Tall received a letter from his hedgehog friend.  Only it wasn’t his friend, it was only a dream of his friend (don’t try and figure that out – this is just a story, ok?)  In Quick’s dream, we can see Quick climbing a tree in his backyard, and telling us there are apples, just out of reach, and that he wanted them for a pie. “What kind of pie?” asked the Tall Hedgehog.  Quick just looked down, smiled, and said, “If I really have to explain, you’ll never understand.”

Once again, Tall was impressed with Quick’s uncanny brilliance, and the farmer’s intuition that had always evaded Tall’s engineering mind.  Tall Hedgehog thought for a moment, then turned around to face the tree Quick had been climbing.  Tall Hedgehog started to say, “Apple pie!  You want the apples for apple pie!”  But even as he opened his mouth, Quick had climbed higher, and higher, and higher – until he had passed the top of the tree and disappeared.

That was the last time we saw Quick.  Some of us will wonder if he found the apples he needed for his apple pie.  For Tall Hedgehog, there remains the never-ending questions: how many apples?  What kind?  What are the measurements for the other ingredients?  How can I ever get this right without the colorful creativity of Quick Hedgehog? 

But even as these questions are asked, the answers are right at hand: If you learn to believe in someone when they’re close to you, you will find that you can still believe in them when they are far away.  Even so, if you know someone believes in you to your face, you must know that they still believe in you when they’re gone.

Thank you for believing in me, Quick Hedgehog.

Warm regards,
Tall Hedgehog

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War Trees

(A side conversation, edited out of The Human Scale)

“You know how sometimes, in a grove of oak trees,” Indy began as though they had already been chatting, “sometimes there are little groups of smaller oaks clumped together?  I mean, there might be lots of giant oaks in the grove, of such size as would take two or three people to touch hands around the trunk.  But then every so often you will find a clump of smaller ones, and these will always be arranged in a ring.  You’ve seen this?”  Jill wasn’t sure, but nodded anyway, and Indy continued, “This happens when one of the big trees has been cut down.  Fifty years ago, or maybe a hundred.  Just long enough for some branches to form around the remaining stump, and those branches to eventually grow into trees. That’s why they form little rings.  The stump may be long gone now, leaving only a little circle of sister oaks.”

Jill realized that there were trees outside like this, on the property.  “Yes,” she said, “that makes sense.”

“Sometimes, you will see a forest composed only of such tree-rings. Ring after ring, easily mistaken for branching trunks, but really all growing from old stumps.  A forest like that would have been, at some time in the past, completely razed.  Lots of clear-cutting went on during the Gold Rush. Whole hillsides of nothing but stumps.”  Indy paused, and added, “But now there are how many trees?  Three, or even four of them for every one that was cut?  Like a slow-motion hydra, over hundreds of years, many lifetimes, the forest multiplies in the face of injury.”

“Did you just read that?”  Jill was looking at the stack of books on the coffee table, trying to see which it might have come from.

“No,” Indy said. “I don’t really know where that came from.  It sounds like the kind of thing my mother would have told me, but I don’t recall her saying it.” He paused. “I think of it now, because it describes martyrdom, in a way.  If the tree had lived, it would have grown old, and eventually fallen over.  However, by being cut down, its power is multiplied.” Jill stared blankly, as though the room were on fire, and no one else was noticing. 

“You’re telling me that Desirae’s death will be worth it,” Jill said, “is that what you mean?”

“No.”  Indy was shaking his head. “Desirae is more powerful now that she is gone than she was while she carried the torch for us.  Now her plans have been picked up by a mob of people who will storm the castle in her name.  They will probably make a difference.  In fact, this generation of activists will likely change everything.  But, no, it’s not ‘worth it.’ It isn’t, in the same that the little rings of oaks have not replaced the groves.  The old forest is gone, it is not coming back.  The new forest remains to be seen.  It’s different.  It’s unstoppable.  It’s a miracle. It’s a radical evolution, and an overwhelming wave of progress.  It’s many things, but there is no worth here, no value in conflict.” Indy paused. “There is no trade, no exchange.  More trees do not make more value. The river only flows one way.”

Jill started to speak, then stopped.  After several minutes of contemplation, she said, “I’m going home.”

Indy nodded. “Good call.”  He stirred the embers of the fire a bit and closed the damper.  He gathered the empty teacups from the coffee table and followed Jill out of the room in silence.

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Where Are They Now?

Ray Davies is a creative and often erudite song-writer, known by many for his work in pop music and, by some of us, his rock operas as well. Working mainly with the Kinks, his lyrical content ranges from current events, to popular themes, to some that are more timeless, and philosophical.  During the height of the British Invasion, Davies recorded “You Really Got Me”, a high energy proto-punk love-song that is still played on the radio in 2018.  In the later period of the Kinks, Davies’ wrote mostly about the plight of the common man in the face of current events, with songs like “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” and “A Gallon of Gas” solidly reaching the charts.  In between these two periods came the art-rock movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, during which time Davies seems to have switched to writing music of a more theatrical nature.

Many of the concept albums of the period sought to explore social issues in one form or another.  While some where simply loosely connected selections songs (the Beatles “Rubber Soul,” the Eagles “Hotel California”) others took the form of theatrical works, such as the Who’s “Tommy,” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”  Ray Davies, with the Kinks, released the rock opera Preservation: Act 1 in 1973 (the same year as another concept album, “Dark Side of the Moon,” was released.)  Preservation: Act 1 described, through the voices of its characters, a desire for social change, in response to the abuses of crooked politicians.  The album’s storyline includes the rise of a new leader who promises wonderful things, but it’s not clear that he is any better than the previous administration.

It has been common for Davies to use cultural references of all manor to engage his audience while making his point, and the song “Where Are They Now?” is a classic example of his talent.  I’ve long wondered about the people referenced in this song, many of which I was not (until recently) familiar with.  I finally got around to tracking them down, along with a few significant phrases, and it seems worthwhile to share what I’ve found.  In the song, “Where Are They Now?” refers to the subculture and activists of late 1950’s and early 1960’s London.  It’s a pivotal song to the album, and worth taking the time to grok. 

The lyrics below are annotated only with inline hyperlinks.  My hope is that you find this reading as engaging as I have, wearing out your back button into the night as you move from one to the next.

Where Are They Now?
Preservation: Act I
The Kinks (1973)
(Annotated with hyperlinks)

I’ll sing a song about some people you might know
They made front pages in the news not long ago
But now they’re just part of a crowd
And I wonder where they all are now.

Where have all the swinging Londoners gone?
Ossie Clark and Mary Quant
And what of Christine Keeler,
John Stephen and Alvaro,
Where on earth did they all go?
Mr. Fish and Mr. Chow,
Yeah, I wonder where they all are now.

Where are all the teddy boys now?
Where are all the teddy boys now?
The brill cream boys with d.a.s,
Drainpipes and blue suedes,
Beatniks with long pullovers on,
And coffee bars and ban the bomb,
Yeah, where have all the teddy boys gone?

I hope that Arthur Seaton is alright.
I hope that Charlie Bubbles had a very pleasant flight,
And Jimmy Porter‘s learned to laugh and smile,
And Joe Lampton‘s learned to live a life of style.

Where are all the angry young men now?
Where are all the angry young men now?
Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe,
Where on earth did they all go?
And where are all the protest songs?
Yes, where have all the angry young men gone.

I wonder what became of all the rockers and the mods.
I hope they are making it and they’ve all got steady jobs,
Oh but rock and roll still lives on,
Yeah, rock and roll still lives on.

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At Water’s Edge



“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” —Winnie the Pooh

I stopped just short of the water’s edge.  I hadn’t expected this situation at all, as the trail was well worn, and seemed like it should continue. In this place, there were even stepping stones, poached from the nearby land and placed by some anonymous traveler, apparently for the benefit of anyone who would find them later. There were no signs, no warning whatsoever. Yet there it was: a pond, directly in the trail.  I looked left, and I looked right, but there were no signs of travel in either direction along the shore.  One minute I was strolling along the path, the next my progress was cut short.  The pond itself was not newly flooded, but old, and well established, its marshy clumps of reeds overhanging the sandy earth of the shoreline.  The trail just seemed to end here, as though it were the final destination.

I was perplexed.  I craned my neck, seeking any sign that there might be others in the area. No one; I was alone. Did people come here to wash things – like clothing, or to bathe? That would explain the need for such a path. But there were no real signs of activity here, the trail simply ended at the water’s edge. Did people come here to fish? No way to be sure, but there were no obvious signs of fishing, and no dock, no fishing boats. Did people come here to gather water then?  Possibly.  The pond seemed clear, and fresh, as though it were fed by unseen springs.  Cool water, rising from the depths of the rocky earth beneath my feet.  It was a thought that felt refreshing, soothing, and reminding me that my feet were tired.  I looked around for a clear space to rest on the low grass beside the trail.

Perhaps this is what people do here, I thought to myself.  Perhaps they come to relax, and spend a few hours or minutes in the light of the late sun; to inhale the smell of the mud at the water’s edge; to listen and hear the small sounds of insects about their insect business and the talking breezes which chattered in a language of near understanding.   Perhaps people come here simply to marvel at the tiny waves lapping the shore, whose miniature tongues curl like so many flames, persistently seeking to move, and then to re-move, the division between water and earth.

I may have fallen asleep for a while, but the sun had only advanced by the smallest degree.  Time seemed to scrape its belly on the trail before the water’s edge, hanging low on its tired legs, as though urging me to continue alone.  It was a lazy kind of day anyway, in late fall, with its blend of warm sun and chill draughts of air.  The kind of day in which anything could happen, but nothing did.  I would like to go on record to say that I believe in nothing beyond the present, as the future is unseen, will always be unseen, and each moment slips into the past before we can even put our arms around it.   Why should this philosophical ditty matter now?  Does it need to matter?

I looked back down the trail which led me to this spot.  It was long and meandering.  Sometimes steep, sometimes slick with moss, sometimes rocky, with sharp, dangerous edges, while on other days totally unremarkable, tame, even seductive.  I don’t know what I expected to find, when I began this path, but this place was a surprise.  I should say, “is” a surprise, as there is only this moment, the present – only now.  This is a surprise.  The trail is long.  The water is clear, and calm, and settling into the nest of its vale like a cat settles in the laundry basket.

I am looking out to the lake now. It is bigger than I had thought, and I now see that it is dotted with small islands.  I see trees on some of the islands, shrouded in a light mist, and having a bit of glow about them as the sunset places the leafless branches in soft silhouette.  In my mind’s eye, I can see movement on the islands, but I know this is whimsy, or the work of an overactive imagination.  I can feel that this place is only for me, and the other-worldly shadows that leap from island to island are just that – shadows, of another life, or another place, not really part of this landscape.

I am standing beside my father now, as he was when I was small.  He is supine on the lawn. I leap upon him, but he catches me and holds me at arm’s length over his head.  He lowers his arms, the pushes me back up, and I feel myself fall, bouncing on his chest as he laughs. I can feel that he is solid, immovable, permanent.  Now I stand beside his bed as he becomes part of the world that gave him to me, fading into the rocks, the forest wood, the ocean – solid, immovable, permanent.  I walk now with my mother, and hold her hand.  I can smell her perfume, and the hand-lotion on her fingers, now on my fingers.  Her lips are moving, but her words are so quiet, fading to pastel, then watercolor, now an unfinished veil painting, with no firm designs, no edges.  I have so many questions for her, but each moment slips into the past before we can even put our arms around it.

At the water’s edge, I examine myself in the mirror liquid.  I see my father’s chin, my mother’s eyes, my sister’s ambition, my brother’s memory. I see the hopes and dreams of my children, the lines and creases of past loves, together, in the present, right now.  They are all in the face looking up from the water, but through them I see something new, something I hadn’t noticed before.  I have been standing at the water’s edge, letting so many moments sift through my fingers, like bits of grain in a sieve, or the raindrops that had begun to obliterate the trail at my back, and I had not noticed something behind my own reflection.   The glassy surface of the lake reveals its secrets as the sun begins to set, as the reflection gives way to the truth, and looking through my face I see stones.  Stepping stones – and the trail – continuing along, unending, uninterrupted, beneath the vast expanse of water.

I laugh as I kick off my shoes, looking ahead, I continue to follow the trail.  And now the moment at water’s edge has gone, slipping away as all moments do.


Posted in Fiction, Stories | Leave a comment

Causal Theory of Truth


To anyone who is not acquainted with its far reaching implications, the Liar Paradox may seem only a funny quirk of language, a kind of puzzling feature of certain types of sentences.  For those who have studied the Liar, it is much more than that.   The Liar Paradox is a problem in the way the truths of self-referential declarative sentences are interpreted under traditional views.  Even worse, the paradox is not restricted to linguistics, but has been found to exist in first order logic, as well as mathematics.  The implications of this may not at once be obvious: aberrations in natural language are one thing, fundamental flaws in the foundations of the formal systems of logic and mathematics are quite another. How can we trust proofs obtained by the use of formal systems which contain such a defect?  All of the knowledge which scientific study has given us relies upon some basic assumptions about the nature of truth, yet these basic assumptions are called into question by the Liar Paradox.

The problem I refer to arises from the apparent contradiction we find in anything which attempts to negate itself.  The classic form of the Liar Paradox is the following declaration:

This sentence is false

The above sentence cannot be true, because its claim of falsity would make it false.  It cannot be false, as that would make its proposition true.   It would not be a problem if the sentence were simply wrong, but such is not the case here.  Theories have been proposed which claim that the Liar is neither true nor false, or that it is both true and false, that it is meaningless, or even that it is syntactically flawed.  However, each of these options seems to present its own set of problems.

In this paper, I will discuss a number of key variations upon the Liar Paradox, and present a hypothesis which I believe may eventually lead to a new understanding of the paradox itself.   My hypothesis is quite simple in essence, but requires a significant shift in thinking (at least in the Western World) to actually be applied.  I view the problem with the Liar as a symptom of certain underlying principles which apply to interpreting sentences.   I believe that if we choose the correct set of principles, that symptom will vanish.  In order to accomplish this, one short step must be taken in our conceptualization of the idea of “truth value” in declarative sentences.  I will argue that we must consider the truth or falsity to be an effect of a sentence, rather than one of its properties.  While this step alone represents a solution to the paradox, in this paper I will go further suggest a certain view of causality which is likely to yield the best results when evaluating the truth values of sentences.  Collectively these will provide a robust platform from which we can defeat the Liar Paradox.


Truth Defined, Part 1

In this paper, I will hold to the transparent conception of truth, which is to make the assertion that “it is true that a” and “a” are essentially interchangeable.   More accurately, transparent truth is defined in the statement “it is true that a” if and only if “a”.  Symbolically, we can say:

  1. Where T is the global truth predicate, a is a proposition, and [a] the name of the proposition.

This rule of substitution allows for generalizations about truth values which would not be possible otherwise, and I will further generalize this conception of truth to include deflationary theory of truth, Tarski’s T-schema truth references, as well as the more recent Catch and Release theory.  The reason for this broad definition of truth is to refer to a family of truth conceptions, any of which should be interchangeable in the context of this paper.   The importance of this family of truths will become apparent in the section on Cause and Effect, below. (Beall, Spandrels of Truth, 2009) (Damnjanovic & Stoljar, 2010) (Priest, 2007)


The Liar’s Club

To begin this discussion, we must consider the actual form of the Liar.  The canonical Liar, it would seem, can be expressed like this:

  1. Sentence (3) is true
  2. Sentence (2) is false

The problem with (2) and (3) is that there are no sets of truth values for the two sentences which are consistent:

(2) (3) Problem with truth values
T T If (3) is true, (2) must be false
T F If (2) is true, (3) must not be false
F T If (3) is true, (2) must not be false
F F If (2) is false, (3) must not be false


This problem condition arises because, under traditional interpretation, we are presented with a proposition which attempts to affirm another proposition which in turn disaffirms the first proposition.

The syntactic action involved can be expressed in the simplified form:

  1. Sentence (4) is false.

We can make this simplification under the principle that any declarative sentence contains an implicit assertion of its own trueness, making the proposition in (2) unnecessary.  This is the most common expression of the Liar, or at least its less formal variant: “This sentence is false.”  Sentence (4) seems to be the most popular because of its simplicity – the apparent paradox is easy to detect, even if formal definition is more closely aligned with the pair of sentences (2) and (3).  However, these two forms are functionally identical, and are subject to similar attempts at solution.

One family of attempted solutions involves attempting to prove that sentence (4) is both true and false, thereby relieving the paradox.  Regardless of the merits of these theories, a simple alteration of the Liar renders them impotent:

  1. Sentence (5) is not true

Known as the Strengthened Liar, the statement “This sentence is not true” is considered the most stringent test of any theory which attempts to diffuse the paradox. (Dowden, Liar Paradox, 2010)

As previously mentioned, the Lair Paradox is not restricted to the linguistic realm.  In 1903, Bertrand Russell showed that Cantor’s Naïve Set Theory (an informal but important theory of mathematical sets) led to a contradiction:

  1.  let R = { x │ x ∉x },then R ∈R ⇔R ∉ R

This symbolic statement declares “if we let R equal the set of all sets x such that x is not a member of set x, then R is a member of R if and only if R is not a member of R.”  (Irvine, 2009)  The same principle is clearly at work in statement (6) as in the other renderings of the Lair Paradox above (i.e. we could re-state the liar sentence as “This sentence is true if and only if it is false”.)


The significance of Russell’s Paradox can be seen once it is realized that, using classical logic, all possible sentences follow from a contradiction. For example:

1 A Premise
2 ~A Premise
3 A ∨ B Disjunction introduction (1)
4 B Disjunctive syllogism (2, 3)

Set theory yields the contradictory statement (A ^ ~A), forming premises 1 and 2. These premises can then be used to prove any arbitrary statement through a simple process involving perfectly valid rules of inference.  Because set theory underlies all branches of mathematics, this fact could be used to cast doubt upon any mathematical proof. (Irvine, 2009)

This logical paradox is easily applied to statements in natural language, as in this example:

  1. The moon is made of cheese
  2. Statements (7) and (8) are false

Sentence (8) implicitly asserts its own truth, while explicitly asserting its own falsity, thereby creating the required contradiction (A ^ ~A).  In this case, the disjunction introduction is sentence (7), and the resulting inference can be clearly seen, as established in the resulting truth table:

(7) (8) Result
T T (8) cannot be true due to contradiction
T F If (8) is false, then (7) can be true – no contradiction
F T (8) cannot be true due to contradiction
F F (7) and (8) cannot both be false due to contradiction


The only possible combination of truth values for statements (7) and (8) seem to prove that the moon is made of cheese.   (Dowden, Liar Paradox, 2010)

The Russell Paradox was discovered and understood in Naïve Set Theory, an informal system of logic. In 1936, Alfred Tarski showed that in a strong formal system of logic, truth about the system cannot be defined within the system itself.  Discussion of Tarski’s Undefinability Theorem is beyond the scope of this paper.  However, it is relevant to this topic in that it, and the closely related Incompleteness Theorem of Kurt Gödel, mark the presence of essentially the same paradox at the most fundamental levels of logic.  (Priest, 2007) (Dowden, Liar Paradox, 2010)

Possible Solutions

There are four primary families of solutions to the Paradox of the Liar.

  1. The liar sentence is meaningless, or not grammatically correct. Tarski, Quine, and Russell have all taken this tack in one form or another.  In proving meaninglessness, some theories claim that language is only a crude representation of an underlying set of actual meanings and references which operate on multiple levels. The Liar sentence attempts to simultaneously reference more than one level in the hierarchy, which cannot be allowed.


  1. Another approach is to argue that the Liar is neither true nor false. Kripke adopts this view, categorizing the Liar sentence with those lacking in reference altogether, such as “The present king of France is bald” (spoken at a time in which France has no king.)   Thus is introduced the concept of a “truth value gap,” into which such self-referential sentences fall.


  1. A theory proposed by Prior claims that to interpret the Liar as a paradox is to make an invalid assumption about the nature of its proposition. Drawing subtle distinctions in meaning, this view holds that the Liar could be construed as forming either a negation of itself (making it simply false) or a denial of itself (making it simply true).  Philosophers Barwise and Etchemendy espouse this theory.
  2. A more radical way out of the paradox is to accept that the Liar is both true and false, and then adapt the rules of formal logic to accommodate this condition. The use of paraconsistent logic in this methodology tends to result in a weaker formal system of logic.
    (Dowden, Liar Paradox, 2010)

For any of the above solutions, there are consequences.  In many cases, classical logic must be revised.  In others, new problems are introduced.  In his book, Revenge of the Liar, Beall writes that “[T]he Liar’s Revenge phenomena is reflected in the apparent hydra-like appearance of Liars: once you’ve dealt with one Liar, another one emerges.” (Beall, Revenge of the Liar, New Essays on the Paradox, 2007) Elsewhere, Beall chooses the term “spandrels” to describe “unintended by-products” of re-conceptualizing truth to accommodate the Liar. (Beall, Spandrels of Truth, 2009)

The solution I will propose is most closely akin to family (B), in that I will say that the Liar is neither true nor false.  However, the grounds for my claim are very different that those of Kripke.   For Kripke’s solution, the spandrels are quite severe.  For example, the existence of a truth value gap presents difficulties in defining falsity, specifically in deflationary theory.   The complexities of having a partially interpreted truth value predicate seem to outweigh any advantage gained by overcoming the logical paradox, and it is not clear that Kripke’s solution is tenable under all possible circumstances.  (Damnjanovic & Stoljar, 2010) (Dowden, Liar Paradox, 2010)

In another sense, it seems to me that a theory of truth should be general, avoiding special interpretation for cases such as the Liar.  Since the mechanics of a Liar sentence and any other self-referencing declarative sentence are essentially the same, does the truth value gap becomes a chasm into which we can arbitrarily throw any sentence whose semantics happen to bother us?  If the self-referential sentence “this sentence is false” should be ruled to have no truth value, should not the same be said of this sentence?

  1. Sentence (9) is true

Why is it that only a sentence involving assertion of its own falsity should be stripped of its truth value and tossed into the gap?  Of course, sentence (9) does not pose the same problem of logic that sentence (4), did.  However, it should be clear that any treatment of the liar paradox which affects the interpretation of self-referential sentences must apply equally to all self-referential sentences, paradoxical or not.

Another type of circular sentence is as this example:

  1. Sentence (10) is in English

It may be tempting to call sentence (10) self-referential, but it is not – at least not in the sense applicable to the Liar.  Although sentence (10) does describe one of its own properties, it does not refer to its own truth value.  That being the case, it is clear that circularity itself is not at issue, the only condition being the case of self-reference to truth value.  I would like to reiterate that: the problem is not, as it is commonly named, a problem of self-reference.  The problem with the Liar is specific to references to truth value, not to any other aspect of the sentence.


Truth Defined, Part 2

Previously, I declared the nature of truth I would be using in this paper – namely, deflationism, broadly defined.  In light of the previous section, I will now show how we can harness this definition to include the application of truth to the Liar Paradox.

The truth value of a sentence has an interesting relationship to its sentence.  Truth or falsity has historically been considered a property of a sentence.  That view has changed significantly in the last century.   A contemporary textbook on the subject of symbolic logic declares that “truth value is not really part of what, in ordinary language, we think of as a statement’s meaning.  This is apparent when we consider that one can often completely understand a statement without having any idea of whether or not it is true.” (Bessie & Glennan, 2000)  Even more to the point, deflationist theories of truth specifically reject truth as a property of individual sentences.

Consider two true sentences:

  1. The earth revolves around the sun
  2. Sacramento is the capitol of California

In some sense, both sentences (11) and (12) do share a generalized property of being true.  However, if we are using the global truth predicate T, can we say that both of these sentences are T?  If so, it should be the case that there is a common explanation of the reasons sentences (11) and (12) are both T.  However, we can see that (11) is true by virtue of the physics which cause earth to revolve around the sun, and that (12) is true because of California’s history leading to the establishment of Sacramento is its capitol.  In this sense, there is nothing shared between the truth values of sentences (11) and (12), because the reasons for their trueness are not the same.  (Damnjanovic & Stoljar, 2010)


Causal Theory: First Formulation

If a truth value is not a property of its related sentence, then what exactly is it?  In response to this question, I offer the first of my two theses: the truth or falsity of a declarative sentence is an effect of the existence of the sentence.  In other words, sentence and truth value have a causal relation, in which the sentence causes the truth value.

From this point forward in this paper, I will omit the word “value” when I refer to truth as an effect, and simply refer to the truth effect of sentences as “ttruth,” adopting J.C. Beall’s convention for “transparent truth.”  I take this measure to keep from reinforcing the misleading idea of “value,” which might indicate a “property” inherent or adherent to an object.  In the sense I will be using, ttruth refers to the effect of a declarative sentence which determines whether the sentence is transparently true or not, as defined in (1), above.   I will return to this topic later in this paper.

In addition to viewing ttruth as an effect, I propose that we adopt the position that declarative sentences about the future have no present ttruth.  The idea that references to the future have no present truth value has a long history in philosophy, and there exist multiple proposed systems of logic intended to deal with contingent truth.  I am extending this concept to include ttruth, and will explore the topic, along with causality, later in this paper.



Armed with these concepts, my Causal Theory of Truth is exemplified in the following argument:

  1. This sentence is false
  2. The ttruth of (13) is caused by (13)
  3. Any cause must temporally precede its effect
  4. Therefore, at the moment of occurrence of (13), the ttruth of (13) has only a future existence
  5. The law of excluded middle does not hold for future tense declarative sentences
  6. Therefore, (13) is neither true nor false at the moment of occurrence


Cause and Effect

Premise (14) depends upon the causal relationship previously alluded to.  At a superficial level, I find it convenient to adopt the counterfactual theory of causation, exemplified by the statement “p is the cause of q just in the case that q would not have happened in the absence of p.” (Garrett, 2006) (Menzies, 2008) If this is the case, then it follows that the ttruth of (13) must have been caused by (13), because that particular instance of ttruth would not exist in the absence of (13).

Of course, there are other theories of causality which could be applied to demonstrate that ttruths are caused by sentences.  In reviewing some of these theories, I find that many of them, although they might seem to support my thesis, treat causality as a relation between events.   Counterfactual theory, as defined above, is just this way.  I want to avoid thinking of ttruth as an event, because I suspect that such a supposition will lead our conceptualization down the wrong path by its connotation.  Ttruth itself should be conceptualized not as something that happens, but as a thing that simply exists at some moment or period in time.  Therefore, I appeal to a slightly different theory of causation.

The Indian philosophy of Sāṅkhya gives us causation conceived of as a necessary relation between a thing and its origin.  Instead of relying upon events and facts as the relata between cause and effect, Sāṅkhya relies upon objects causing the existence of other objects.  Although this may sometimes seem to be the case in western speech, it is not.  For example, “Cars cause thousands of deaths each year” sounds like the relation between objects “car” and “deaths.”  However, the propositions contained in this example are really the impacts of cars and the events of deaths.  The Indian notion of cause and effect follows more closely to the literal interpretation of the example, which could be restated as “the existence of a car impact necessitated the existence of a death” (plurals dropped for clarity.) (Garrett, 2006) (Ruzsa, 2006)

Also important to note is the close relation between cause and effect in Sāṅkhya.  A cause is considered the origin of a thing; the external equivalent of the intellectual process of inference.  Given the example of a potter making a pot from clay, it is the clay which is attributed the prime cause of the pot.  In this way, the effect is essentially identical with its material cause. (Ruzsa, 2006)   If the cause and effect are substantially the same then, in essence, this is another way of conceptualizing the deflationist theory of truth defined in (1), the assertion that “it is true that a” and “a” are interchangeable.


References to the Future

Outside of quantum mechanics, causes must always precede their effects temporally, which is the claim of premise (15).  Setting aside the possibility of simultaneous cause and effect for a moment, we can visualize a causal chain by the example of a billiard ball.  Imagine a cue ball in motion toward a motionless eight ball, on a collision course.  At some point in time, the cue ball collides with the eight, imparting energy to it.  At some point in time after the moment of contact, the eight ball is in motion.  We can say that the motion of the cue ball caused the eight ball to move.  However, it should be apparent that the only cue ball motion relevant to cause is that before the instant of contact, and the only eight ball motion relevant to effect is that after the same instant.  If we assume that the instant in which the energy is imparted has no duration, then the cause in this example can only precede its effect – there can be no overlap between cause and effect.  Of course, in the physical world there would be a brief period in which the energy of the cue ball is declining while the energy of the eight ball is increasing.  The action of logic is not limited by such physical rules, so only the imagined version analogy holds.  In terms of logical simultaneous causation, replies to such theories generally hinge on the idea that apparent examples of it are misdescribed.  (Schaffer, 2007)

The law of excluded middle (I will abbreviate as LEM), referenced in (17), holds that a declarative sentence is either true or it is not true, with no other choices allowed.  This is one of the defining properties of classical systems of logic.  However, many philosophers going back as far as Aristotle have held that propositions about the future cannot have a truth value.  For example, the statement “It will rain tomorrow” cannot be said to be true or false until tomorrow arrives, at which time we can assign truth or falsity post hoc.  This represents a kind of loop-hole for logic which would otherwise be flawed.  (Dowden & Swartz, Truth, 2004)

The future reference loop-hole is not without its problems.  It has been shown that certain deductively valid arguments become unprovable in the face of it. For example:

  1. We’ve learned there will be a run on the bank tomorrow.
  2. If there will be a run on the bank tomorrow, then the CEO should be awakened.
  3. So, the CEO should be awakened.

With classical logic, there is a strong case that this otherwise valid argument fails once deprived of its truth values by the future reference loop-hole. (Dowden & Swartz, Truth, 2004)

It remains to be seen whether the conception of ttruth as I have defined it will have a positive or negative effect on other arguments surrounding LEM or its exceptions.  I suspect that it could be used as a basis for support of the future reference loop-hole, in that ttruth exists only in the future for all declarative sentences.  However, I will leave that argument for another time.

With premise (17) I assert that the ttruth of (13) is in the future relative to the existence of (13), and conclude in (18) that it therefore cannot be applied to (13) at the time of occurrence.  This conclusion shows that the sentence is not, in fact, self-referential in regard to ttruth.

Or is it?  Once the ttruth of a Lair sentence obtains, could the observer somehow take that ttruth and apply it to the sentence?  In addressing this question, I will start with a simple example: changing the past.

Consider this sentence:

  1. I will take a drink from my coffee cup one minute from now

Because it references the future, (22) has no present ttruth.  However, once a minute has past, and I do (or do not) have the drink described, has it happened that ttruth becomes assigned to (22), thereby changing something that exists in the past?   Of course, this is no different than any other type of future tense assertion, and should be treated as such.  (Faye, 2010)

Effects Upon the Liar

The basic form of the Liar, “this sentence is false,” is used in my formulation of Causal Theory, above.  It should be easily seen that the same principle applies to other linguistic varieties of the Liar Paradox, such as the Strengthened Liar shown in (5), and the “split” Liar shown collectively in (2) and (3).  It doesn’t matter how the Liar is redistributed, linguistic Liars are defused by Causal Theory.

More difficult is the Russell Paradox, from the field of mathematics.  Copied from above for reference:

  1. let R = { x │ x ∉x },then R ∈R ⇔R ∉ R

In set theory, we can apply the same principle.  To say that a set is or is not a member of itself requires the set to exist prior to the delineation thereof.  In other words, at the moment of the occurrence of the set definition, the set contains no elements.  After the set has been defined, it becomes populated with all elements that met the defining criteria at the moment of set definition.  Set definition is the cause and the set population its effect.  Since the set itself did not exist until after the moment of set definition, it cannot be considered part of the set.  In this realm, the set definition is analogous to a declarative sentence, and the contents of the set to ttruth.

It would please me greatly to have the capacity to discuss Tarski’s Undefinability Theorem at this point.  However, I am afraid that topic will have to wait until additional research can be made, by myself or others.



For any declarative sentence, its ttruth is in its future and cannot, therefore, be meaningfully referenced from within the sentence.   Without the Russell / Liar Paradox to generate contradictory premises, the paradoxical proofs described above become impossible.

This is only a hypothesis.  The theory I propose will only be realized with additional research, and much deliberation, if at all.  In future papers, I hope to cover the topic in more detail, with more authority in the areas of formal logic, mathematics, and semantics.  I hope to explore side effects, the “spandrels” of Causal Theory, as well as objections and relationships to other theories.  Can this theory be applied to classical logic in a consistent manner?   Does this theory require sweeping changes to classical logic in order to be useful?  Is the application of this theory limited, or can it be generally applied?  These questions and more remain.

One final thought: When viewed in the light of Causal Theory, the Liar sentence should no longer seem to be ttruth self-referential.   Of course, the natural language version of the Liar remains unchanged, and will continue to “sound odd” to the ear.  Or will it?  Could it be that the only reason the Liar sentence strikes us as odd is that we have spent our lives immersed in a peculiar conceptualization of cause and effect?  Is it possible that future generations would read the Liar, and see it something like the potters clay, with its ttruth like a pot emerging as an effect of the clay’s existence?



Allen, R. E. (1991). Greek Philosophy, Thales to Aristotle. New York: The Free Press.

Beall, J. (2007). Revenge of the Liar, New Essays on the Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press.

Beall, J. (2009). Spandrels of Truth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bessie, J., & Glennan, S. (2000). Elements of Deductive Inference. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Damnjanovic, N., & Stoljar, D. (2010, October 4). The Deflationary Theory of Truth. Retrieved 01 15, 2011, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Dowden, B. (2010, 4 6). Liar Paradox. Retrieved 1 12, 2011, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Dowden, B., & Swartz, N. (2004, September 17). Truth. Retrieved January 16, 2011, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Faye, J. (2010, February 16). Backward Causation. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Garrett, B. (2006). What is this thing called Metaphysics? New York: Routledge.

Irvine, A. D. (2009, May 27). Russell’s Paradox. Retrieved January 15, 2011, from Stanfor Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Lorkowski, C. M. (2010, November 7). David Hume: Causation. Retrieved January 14, 2011, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Menzies, P. (2008, March 30). Counterfactual Theories of Causation. Retrieved January 16, 2011, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Priest, G. (2007). Revenge, Field and ZF. In J. Beall, & J. Beall (Ed.), Revenge of the Liar, New Essays on the Paradox. New York: Oxford Press.

Russell, B., & Whitehead, A. N. (1913). Principia Mathematica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruzsa, F. (2006, March 6). Sāṅkhya. Retrieved January 16, 2011, from Internet Encyclopedia or Philosophy:

Schaffer, J. (2007, August 13). The Metaphysics of Causation. Retrieved 01 18, 2011, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Various. (1978). Paradox of the Liar. (R. L. Martin, Ed.) Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Co.


Posted in Essays, Logic | Leave a comment

Karma Days

Roger’s world was getting smaller. He could feel it in the way it fit. Like a pair of jeans, shrinking with each wash, it was apparent that he could not wear it much longer. There was a smell, a taste to this place, which reminded him of his childhood; but he couldn’t place the exact memory. It was a sunset slanting through a window, the taste of a dusty screen. The smell of mothballs in his mother’s closet, fresh in Roger’s nostrils. His nose ran. His back hurt. He wiped his damp fingers on his grimy coat, holding out his hand, “Some change, please, ma’am?”

Sally usually would have ignored a homeless bum. But today, on a whim, she turned her head toward him as she passed. “I’m afraid I don’t give directly to the homeless, friend. My charity goes to the Friendship Center, on the north side of town. They feed people like yourself; you might go check it out.” She looked directly at Roger’s gaunt face, and with emphasis she repeated: “Friendship Center.” She continued into the café.

Frank was already there sipping coffee in front of his paper, catching moments of scone between paragraphs. He noticed Sally with a nod and a smile, washed down a few crumbs, and asked, “What’s new?”

“Not much,” she replied on her way to the counter. “You?”

Frank shrugged without comment.

The café stereo played something trendy, a soundtrack to Sally’s exchange of cash with the barista. She chose to wait for her drink before sitting down. What is that song? She wondered, trying to hum along with a new-but-familiar-sounding melody. It’s like something from high school. I can almost remember dancing to it – but… different. No, not the same song, but nice. I’ll have to ask, I bet they sell this CD. At the sidewalk, Roger could hear the same melody from the patio speakers. It made him sad somehow, and he walked away.

“I lied,” confessed Sally after sitting down, “I do have something to report.”

“You do?” Frank asked, eyebrows raised. “New lover? Promotion? Patents pending?”

Sally laughed out loud. “No! Nothing so dramatic, but pretty groovy, nonetheless.”

“Your inner-hippie is showing.”

“Shut up and listen!” Sally was obviously smitten by an eager bug. Frank pocketed his next few comical remarks, and waited.

“Okay,” she continued, “I was at the toy store on 3rd St. The woman ahead of me at the checkout suddenly gasped, and began rummaging furiously through her purse. She kept repeating ‘Hang on…,’ and looking in all the pockets, ‘Hang on…’ She stopped, looked up at the checker, at me, then back into her purse. Turns out she had lost a hundred dollar bill. She’d set it aside to buy Christmas presents for her kids and it wasn’t there! She turned and apologized to me for the delay. She apologized!”

Frank listened impassively, waiting for the punch line.

“I could tell she didn’t have much money. You know – thrift shop clothes, an overworn purse – you can kinda tell. She had picked good but moderately priced toys, and had set the newspaper ad down on the counter. With a coupon, she had come in just under the one hundred dollar limit.”

“Was this my mom, by any chance?” Frank jumped in, “I don’t want to have to return the Justice League action figure set I just know she got for me…”

“Clamp it, Frank!” Sally took a sip and continued. “She started crying. It was a huge setback for her. I mean, a hundred bucks is a fair sum when you make good money. But when you’re broke, well…” She shook her head. “I paid for the toys.”

“Was she working a scam?” asked Frank. “Sometimes people will use their kids to play on the sympathies of passersby…”

“No way. I could tell which pocket she had kept the money in. She kept checking that spot over and over, as though hoping she’d just missed it. She didn’t cry right away, either. I could see the look on her face when it really hit her, and she tried to hide it. Of course, she wouldn’t let me pay at first. But here’s the important part:  I paid, and then refused to arrange for her to repay me. I mean, she offered and all. But I told her to pay someone who needs it, whenever she gets the chance.”

“Pay it forward, then?” Frank had his usual look of holier-than-thou understanding out in a flash, “This is why you’re all glowing and shit, like Kevin Spacey, changing the world – one tea set at a time? Did you ask her to help out three other people?” A parodic tossing of the head.

Sally was expecting such a remark. “This wasn’t a movie, Frank! And I didn’t actually see that one, anyway. But yes, ‘pay it forward.’  Can’t do it any better than that. It’s the true nature of charity – no strings attached. Helping someone who will not be able to return the favor.” Frank had a contemplative nod going now, Sally continued. “It’s one thing to lend money to a friend. It feels good to help somebody out, you know? But it feels ten times better when you know that you are helping someone who cannot repay you. I’ll probably never see that woman again. That’s part of the deal:  she won’t be able to thank me or anything.”

“What about charitable giving?” Frank interjected. “That’s the same way:  the kids at Shriner’s will never pay you back.”

“Different.” Sally shook her head. “That’s detached, abstract and, I don’t know – it’s good, but not the same. Besides, only a percentage goes to the cause. The rest is overhead for the charity administration.”

“True.” Frank was mulling this over, when his reverie was interrupted by the dishwasher bussing the table. The moment was past.

“Hey, I gotta run,” said Frank. “Catch you tomorrow, huh?”

* * *

Roger’s world was getting smaller. He knew that he could not wear it much longer. There was something glaring at him, though, out of the corner of his eye. He turned to look, but it was gone. Like the memory of words overheard and forgotten, gone like a dream of a different person in another life. There was a smell to this place. It was the enemy of light; dank and foggy. Roger’s stomach was an empty sack, filled only with the ghosts of broken promises. But that memory of words overheard, and forgotten – what were those words? He tried to sift them from the ramblings of his tired mind. North. That woman had said, “North.” Roger was hungry, and the woman had told him something about food “on the north side of town.”

* * *

Frank spotted Sally before she got in the door. He set the paper down, waiting anxiously for her to get her coffee and come to the table. He looked out the window, watching the snow fall on the traffic in the street, on the tops of awnings, in the intersection. In some places, you could see the snowflakes in the air; in others, you could not – but you knew they were there. In front of the streetlights you could see a constant fall of snow, moving quickly through the narrow band of colored light, yet no snow accumulation on the tops of the lamps. On the patio rails and posts there were perhaps three inches piled up, yet no flakes were visibly falling on them. An odd illusion, thought Frank, the dichotomy of snowfall.

“Hey!” Sally’s greeting broke into Frank’s little bubble of existence, reminding him that he was excited to see her.

“Hey there!” Frank paused briefly. “So, you remember our conversation of a few weeks ago, the one about your big Christmas Toy Purchase?”

Sally wiped coffee from her cheek – she had been taking a sip when her giggle took over. “I didn’t ‘buy’ any Christmas toys. I gave someone money, you nut!”

“Right.” Frank slid on. “You felt good about doing a Good Deed for one who would not be able to pay it back – the ‘pay it forward’ thing.”


“I believe your exact words were, ‘You can’t do any better than that.’ Am I right?”

“Well, I may have said something like that…”

Frank gathered himself, like a kitten preparing to pounce. “I’ve got a better one.”

Sally was intrigued by the expression on her usually blasé and comically witty friend’s face; Frank had definitely reached a new level of smug today. “Go on,” she said.

“I used to go ice fishing with my cousin in Michigan.” Sally gave a quizzical look, but Frank continued. “I haven’t gone in years, and my cold weather gear has just been sitting in the closet. Well, you know that guy that runs the newspaper stand two blocks that way?” Pointing. “He’s been there forever. In all weather – heat, rain, and these icy winter storms. He can’t afford a decent jacket. Have you seen the layers of flannels he puts on? I’ve seen him burning stacks of day old newspapers in the garbage can, trying to warm up.”

“So you gave him your jacket?” Sally was wondering how this was better than her story.

“No! Well, yes! But that’s not the point.” A conspiratorial look crept over Frank’s face. “I snuck it into the back of the stand and left a note on it.” Grinning. “A three hundred dollar subzero parka, and he’ll never know it was me who gave it to him.”

Sally was nodding with approval, but had yet to grasp Frank’s intended point. “So, it was an expensive jacket, as a gift?”

Head shaking. “Not important. It could have been a five dollar sandwich. The point is this: There are levels of goodwill. Giving something that cannot be repaid is one. Giving anonymously is another. Not only can that man never repay me, he will never know it was me who gave him the coat! And before you ask, he loves it. I bought this paper from him thirty minutes later,” lifting the newspaper, “and he was wearing it. He looked much happier than he did yesterday!”

“You looked him in the eye afterward?” Sally was elated. “Did you make any remark, compliment him on his jacket?”

“Not a chance!” Frank shook his head, “I didn’t want to give anything away. He might have guessed, and then it would be gone.”

The conversation paused for a moment as the dishwasher picked up Frank’s plate.

“Okay,” Sally said, “that’s a better one. Let me see what I can do.”

“Are you going to try and out-nice me?”

“Scared of friendly competition?”

In lieu of a reply, Frank leaned back, crossed his arms, and looked thoughtfully out the window at the snow, now just a bit higher on the patio rail.

* * *

Roger’s world was very small. There was only him, and a few others, holed up in this last house. Travelers they were, on the road unknown:  a path leading away from the cracked concrete and wind-tortured rumble of the urban wilderness. There was a fire here, yellow and warm.  And a taste, too:  a taste like water from a warm, summer mud puddle with tadpoles in it. Roger looked at the others. Some shared this place; others came and went. Counselors – yes, that was it – counselors during the day. He looked at the letterhead on the papers he’d been given. “Friendship Center.” How long have I been here? He wondered. Roger leaned back on the couch and drifted off into a light sleep.

* * *

“Sometimes life hands you material.” Sally was beaming, suppressed excitement dimpling her cheeks. She sipped her coffee, waiting, refusing to go any further until asked.

Frank obliged. “Alright. Let’s hear it!”

“Ok,” she set down her cup, folded her hands in front of her on the table. “A few weeks ago, I took on the challenge.” She shot an inquiring look across the table. “You know, different levels of charity? I was thinking it over, and anonymous good deeds are fairly easy to come by – you agree?” A nod from Frank. “That was level two, as I recall. So how do I improve on that? Hmm? Well, this morning I had an even better chance fall right into my lap.”

“A ‘Lap Chance’ it was, then?”

“Punny, Frank. Very punny.”

“Sorry. Go on.”

“I was leaving the townhouse, when I noticed a trashy mess on the stoop of my neighbor Helen’s place. I immediately pictured Helen – elderly, living alone – having to deal with it, and thought I’d pick it up for her.” Frank was gathering an unimpressed look. “Hang on! There’s more! So I walk up to her steps, and I realized she’d been vandalized! Two large clay pots – big ones, tall as this table – overturned and smashed on the stairs. Plants everywhere.”

“Wow,” said Frank, serious for a change. “That’s sad.”

“Yeah, well, here’s the good part:  I’ve been admiring these beautiful pots for some time. Terra cotta, nice design. She got them at Rupert’s; I know, because I asked. In fact, I had already gone and bought two of them for my own porch; they were sitting in my garage!” Frank began to nod, seeing the direction this was going. “It’s 6:30. Helen doesn’t move around until midmorning, and she’s likely a heavy sleeper. I gathered up the scattered plants, took them to my place, had them repotted in a few minutes. By the time I left, I had swept her porch and replaced the pots.”

“Well, she certainly won’t know to pay you back for the favor…” Frank began.

“Frank, she won’t even know that she’s gotten a favor!” Sally was completely ecstatic at this point. “Helen will never know that she was vandalized, nor will she have any idea that a caring neighbor took the time to fix it. It was not about the cost of the pots; they’re not that much. I saved her the pain and the work, which was much easier for me than it would have been for her.”

“A good deed for one who will never even know about it.”


“That is a new ‘level,’ for sure – the third, it would seem. I don’t know how I could outdo that.”

* * *

Roger’s world was small. But it seemed to fit. He shrugged his shoulders, stretched his back, and stood up. The house felt empty today. Those residents who could had gone on day passes. There was a smell to the air, like hope. It was the scent of a soft breeze, moving dandelion seeds off to their new homes, the taste of long kept fortune cookies just opened from their plastic wrappers.

“How’s it going, Roger?” asked the counselor.

“Good,” Roger said. “My mind gets clearer, every day a little bit clearer.”

“That’s what happens here, Roger.”

“I wish I could remember the person who sent me here. I’d like to thank her.”

“It was a stranger, right? When you were on the street?”

“Yes, but a regular, I think. I can’t remember her face, or anything, really. It just bothers me!”

“Some memories never return, Roger. You were in a very low place. Just be happy that someone sent you to us.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Time is getting close for you to leave here, you know. Next week, you can go looking for a job.”

Roger’s world began to grow.

* * *

Frank arrived at the café at his usual time. It had rained overnight, but the morning sun shone on the early flowers in the window boxes. In perhaps another month, it would be warm enough to leave the windows open; but the café never did so. They would run the air conditioner when it was cooler outside, and the heater when it was warm, as though the building was its own independent ecosystem, with no rhyme or reason, no relation to the rest of the world. Such is the dichotomy of the mindless enterprise, thought Frank. Yet, it has a life of its own.

There was a wallet sitting on the next table. That’s odd… There was a woman sitting there a moment ago... Frank searched the area with a glance, but the owner of the wallet was nowhere to be found. He picked it up. Perhaps there’s an ID, contact info inside. He sat holding the small leather parcel, unwilling to open it, to unceremoniously tromp across the border of someone’s private space. No one was watching; in fact, only a few customers were seated. Most were in line at the counter or leaving with their drinks.

He turned the object over in his hands. No markings to speak of, beyond an ornamental de fleur on the flap. What would be inside? Wallets often held those things most valuable to a person:  a bus pass, driver’s license, medical information. Pictures of small children, and used theater tickets. Business cards from acquaintances and associates, and the cards you have stamped to get your 10th coffee free. There could be locker combinations, keys to safe deposit boxes, and phone numbers. A wallet could contain directions to the prom, positive affirmations, and recipes given in kindness. Reminders, love notes, and sometimes letters that were never meant to be sent. A man’s livelihood might be in his wallet, or a woman’s life. There would probably be sweat in the leather, tears, and spilt perfume. A miniature time capsule of the person who carried it. This would be sorely missed, and the intimate trespass would be forgiven should it lead to the safe return of the wallet. Frank took a quick look around the café before opening the clasp – and there she was.

The woman was coming from the direction of the restroom, heading directly past Frank’s table for the door. She clearly had no inkling of her wallet’s fate. Now what? Frank was aghast, I’ve got a stranger’s wallet in my hand. What… do I just hand it to her? “‘Scuse me ma’am, but would there be a reward for this little trifle?” The momentary embarrassment was fading as the woman reached the door. She stopped, and turned away from Frank. She was getting her jacket from the coat rack.

Preparing to speak, Frank glanced out the window; saw no chance of rain. When he turned to the woman, however, he saw an opportunity. She had her back to him, was putting on her coat. She had set her purse on the floor at her feet. It was open. Frank dropped the wallet into the purse, and turned back to his coffee.


Frank nearly farted in astonishment – but it was just Sally, approaching the table.

“What’s new?” Frank asked, collecting his shattered nerves and chuckling wildly inside.

“Not much,” she replied as she sat down. “You?”

Frank shrugged without comment.

“No witty remarks today? What’s in the news?”

Frank looked at the paper, folded on the table. “Oh, uh… haven’t read it yet.” Should I tell her? Does this match her secretive replacement of the neighbor’s flowerpots? That was, what, level three? The anonymous good deed for one who will never know a service was performed…

“I think the weather is breaking,” Sally was saying. “Early spring, you think?”

“Possibly. Good weather for good deeds, wouldn’t you say?” This is nice. I like this. That woman will never know. No one saw me. Sally gave a scone-crumbed grin, and nodded. The game was still on. Unless I tell, no one will ever, ever know – not even Sally. Doing good without getting caught! Level four…?

Frank’s thoughts were interrupted by the clatter of cups and saucers to his right. The dishwasher was bussing the next table.

“Hey, you’re new here, aren’t you?” Frank asked amicably.

“Yes,” said Roger. “My first day.”

Sally turned, then paused in mid-smile. “Wait a minute,” she said, brows slightly knit. “Have we met?”

“I don’t think so,” Roger responded. “But my memory is not what it once was.”

Three grins, a round of shrugs, and Roger went back into the kitchen.

“Hey, I gotta run.” Said Frank, “Catch you tomorrow, huh?”

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Beth’s Coupon

At nearly twelve years old, my daughter Ellie had shown no obvious signs of leaving the fairy world of early childhood behind.  On any particular afternoon her room would become the site of dinosaur stampedes, tea parties with the queen, or volcanoes made of pillows.  Her pretend games seemed just as vibrant has they had ever been.   She would look forward to visits from Santa and the Easter bunny, and we had done the Tooth Fairy ritual down to the last molar.  It caused my wife and me no little worry that Ellie might become branded feeble by her peers – a baby in sixth-grader clothing.   Even so, we could not find it in our hearts to steer her away from childish practices.  In spite of some early signs of puberty, we felt that it would probably make things harder for Ellie if we tried to pry her out of her flowery reality.

My daughter still carried her favorite doll, Beth, nearly everywhere.  Beth was not a “baby doll” type, but seemed to be more of a pal for Ellie.  It was a bit like having a very quiet second daughter.  Responses to questions were often phrased in the first-person plural, like “We’re not very hungry right now; we want to go to the park before lunch.”  Ellie would usually bring toys for the doll, and sometimes food.  And, like most dolls these days, Beth had accessories.  In addition to the usual array of clothes and shoes, there were hats, mittens – even earrings.  Beth owned a small travel kit with her own comb, lipstick, and toothbrush.  In Beth’s purse were pretend credit cards, an ID, and a surprising variety of other odds and ends.

Ellie and I had finished our chores one Sunday afternoon, and I decided to take her to the movies.  As usual, Beth came along.  In fact, on this trip, Beth was going to pay her own way.  Amongst the sundries in that tiny purse were a small fistful of pretend theater tickets.  We arrived at the box office, and while I paid for us real people, my daughter began to chat about the coupon printed on the back of Beth’s ticket: one free popcorn, and a 16 oz. drink.

I presented our two tickets at the door.  Behind me, Ellie stepped up saying, “She has one, too!” while brandishing both doll and ticket.  Of course, the ticket-taker smiled, accepted the ticket, pretended to tear it and handed it back.  There was a brief smile and the slightest nod, and we proceeded on to the snack bar.  A long line, as usual, in which I mostly looked around the room for familiar faces while my little girl skipped back and forth between the boundary ropes with Beth.

I must confess that I am a bit of a cheapskate at theaters, or, rather, the prices make me flinch to the point that thirst and hunger seem acceptable alternatives to the expensive snacks on display.  I ordered a small box of Raisinets, and a bottled water to share.  And then a small voice to my left chimed in: “And a popcorn, and one 16 oz drink. We have a coupon.”

I bit my lip over the next, rather long, moment while my daughter handed the boy behind the counter Beth’s coupon, printed on the back of a pretend movie ticket.  The kid looked at it for a full fifteen seconds with brows knit, in obvious confusion.  Finally, he seemed to catch on, and said “I’m sorry little girl, but this isn’t for this theater – I can’t accept this coupon.”

I was breathing again.  My daughter’s feelings had been spared; she could deal with the minor disappointment of failing to secure the goods with a pretend coupon without having to be embarrassed at the same time.  I felt so good that I was about to break down and fork over the loot for a popcorn myself, and maybe even the drink.  But, Ellie stopped me.

“Excuse me,” began my child, “but I am sure this coupon is good here.  The man by the door accepted this movie ticket just a few minutes ago, right daddy?” She looked quickly up at me, then back to the cashier.  “Therefore, I know that the coupon – printed on the same ticket – has to be for this theater. There’s no mistaking that.”

There was a kind of silence-bubble surrounding us now.  I’m sure the noises of the busy lobby went on from all sides, but in the air that hung between me, my daughter, Beth, and the boy now leaning forward with his elbows on the counter, there was no sound.  I looked closely at her face.  My little girl had the innocent-but-serious look of a child who honestly believes in the game she is playing.  I knew I needed to extract her from this situation, but how could I do it without publicly trouncing upon her tiny ego?

Before I could act… before anyone could break the spell, she spoke up again.  “If you don’t mind,” said my child in her most firm but polite voice, “I think I’d like to speak to the manager.”  Before I could protest, the cashier jumped at the opportunity to pass the buck, and bolted for an office door at the far end of the counter.

While the other lanes of hungry moviegoers kept moving on either side of us, my girl and I (girls, I suppose, counting Beth) stood at the register waiting.  I could swear that I heard the theme music from Jeopardy playing in the background as the moments ticked by, with me racking my brain for something to say to Ellie.  But every time I looked down at her she simply smiled sweetly up at me.  I held my tongue.   Where was that manager?!

After what seemed like several minutes the boy returned with a man who, from his bearing, was obviously in charge.  He strolled right up to the counter and, with hardly a glance at me, spoke to my companion(s).  “So, what seems to be the problem, ladies?” He asked, although he had certainly been briefed in detail.

“Well,” began my daughter, “Beth here” (holding up the doll) “has a coupon, but your employee doesn’t seem to recognize it.”  She held out the pretend ticket, in all earnestness, with its free popcorn and drink facing the manager.  “Beth was allowed into the show with this ticket” (turning it over) “so I am certain it is good at this theater.”

“I see,” said the manager. With a slight frown he held out his hand, and taking the ticket, inspected it.  “Of course.  My cashier was not aware of this promotional special.  No problem.  I have your popcorn and drink right here.”  And with that, he revealed something he had been carrying, hidden behind the counter in his left hand.   It was a tiny plastic bucket of popcorn and an itty bitty drink!  The items were apparently accessories from another doll, and were exactly the right size for Beth!

I was watching my daughter as an array of expressions flashed across her face.  Her jaw dropped, her eyes opened wide.  She recovered almost instantly, but a moment of stunned realization had been clearly displayed.  It was the look of someone who’s been caught in the act.  Had she been playing the innocent child angle in the hopes of getting free snacks?  Had she concocted the whole thing in order to do this?  I had to admit, the logic of the accepted theater ticket validating the coupon was a pretty good ploy.  Had she simply invented it?  And now, the manager had blown the whole caper by calling her bluff!

Regaining her poise, Ellie smiled her sweetest smile, and curtsied while accepting the pretend goodies from the manager.  Thanking him, she turned on her heel and led me down the hall to the theater.  I resisted the temptation to even ask if she had been working a game on those guys at the counter.  She got Beth all set up in a seat, with the doll-sized popcorn and drink, and seemed perfectly content.  For the duration of the movie, I put the affair out of mind.

* * *

We were leaving the theater, laughing and comparing notes about our favorite bits of the show we had just seen.  My little girl stopped me by the door, and asked me to hold Beth and wait there. I watched her walk across the lobby to the manager’s door, where she knocked and waited.  The door opened, and the man we had seen earlier poked his head out.  There was a brief exchange, and Ellie came walking back to where I stood.

“What was that?” I asked casually.

“I got to thinking,” Ellie explained while taking Beth from the crook of my arm, “and figured the toy food must have belonged to somebody.  I thought I should return it.”

As we broke through the door into the hot summer air, I had an odd moment of realization.  My daughter had named her doll “Beth.”  Why had I never made the obvious connection before?  “Beth” must be short for Ellie’s full name, Elizabeth.

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How I Will Probably Reduce My Belt Size through Learning and Action (or, Cause and Effect for Fun and for Profit)

This paper is not really about reducing my belt size, although I will come to that eventually so that the reader will not accuse me of false advertising.  Instead, I want to talk about some of my observations regarding how earthlings think.  Specifically, how humans learn things, the trap of binary, “either/or thinking,” and how the introduction of probability gets us closer to the truth.  I’ll conclude with a sensible example of converting the knowledge we gain into action.   This is not really a research paper.  These are just observations I have made through a process of introspection, while under the influence of studies in probability and systems theory.  Caveat lector.

While it may seem obvious, I would like to start by saying that our learning process changes over time.  I don’t mean that the things we learn necessarily change over time – in fact we may learn the same things many times, in different shades.  No, I mean that the process we go through to gain knowledge changes as we grow from childhood into adulthood and beyond.

Our first lessons are very simple, and take the form of one-to-one correspondences.  For example: “When I touch something hot with my finger, it burns my finger.”  This important lesson is usually followed up with related empirical verification: “When I touch something hot with my toe, it also burns my toe (similar to how it did with my finger.)”  In this way, the one-to-one correspondence is expanded to the generalization that touching hot things always results in pain to whatever part of the body does the touching.

We live in the world of modus ponens for some time.  All lessons take the form “if p then q.”  When we learn to distinguish ourselves from other beings, we expand our lessons to include them in various ways: “If daddy touches something hot, he gets burned.”  “If the cat touches something hot, the cat feels pain, too.”  “If the newspaper touches the fire, the newspaper burns.”  All variations on the same example – that of getting burned.  All of these are single correspondence, and the simplest form of inference.

Of course the negation of the lesson is easily applied: “If I do not touch the hot thing, I will not get burnt.”  This step seems to be automatic, as it seems to be the primary learning tool of the very young (and sometimes the not so young) as we hear them say, “Well, let’s not be doing that again!”

Somewhere along the line, however, a deeper inference is discovered: “My finger was not burned, therefore the object I touched must not be hot.”  The development of this logical construct, modus tolens (“if not q then not p”) comes to us easily, and gives us another tool to use later in logical argument. For example:

P1           If you love me then you will remember my birthday.

P2           You did not remember my birthday.

C             Therefore, you do not love me.

This is a precursor to a breakthrough moment, which I think nearly everyone achieves.  Our childhood inferences describe simple connections between two facts, with the intuitive identification of causal relation.  This provides a pretty good working model of the world, in which individual objects exist, and these in turn can act upon other individual objects.  However, we eventually discover that this view of the world is wrong.

The breakthrough happens when we realize the existence of probability.  “The stove might be hot.  If I touch the stove, I might get burned.”  This breakthrough opens the floodgates to new possibilities: Weather, cats and coin-flips are all unpredictable.  People can surprise you.  Even your own preferences can vary from day to day (“I liked this soup yesterday afternoon, but this morning it doesn’t impress me.”)  Some things that seem very simple and direct actually have an element of chance, like the local store closing due to a family emergency, or trying to make a phone call at the exact moment all lines were in use.

This dawns a whole new age of thinking, characterized by sentences which have forms like “I probably shouldn’t have a second dessert” or “There might be a party after the game” or “I don’t know if I want to go out with him.”  In fact, the probabilistic world quickly replaces the childhood world with its binary truths.  “Never say never” becomes the call sign, and we admit that – although we don’t really believe in UFOs – there is always a small chance…

At this point, there are related inferences that we learn to assimilate.  For example, I might get an uncomfortable burning from a stove that was off, then realize the sun had been beating on the surface through the window.  In this case, I’ve discovered multiple causation.  Hopefully, I can turn this around, to realize the fallacy of this argument:

P1           If you love me then you will remember my birthday.

P2           You remembered my birthday.

C             Therefore, you love me!

Clearly, there could have been another cause for the remembered birthday (i.e. Facebook notification, friends, happened across a card, etc.)  Thus we have a world with probability, multiple possible causes, and, of course, multiple effects.  Although it may be true that many people think in these terms, this probabilistic view of the world is also wrong.

Perhaps I am being too harsh.  Let me soften the blow a bit: One-to-one correspondence was not entirely wrong.  It was correct in a simplistic way, but very limited.  A great many important ideas cannot be expressed, nor even understood, with the limited inference of if-then-else.  The introduction of probability improves that view, but is – sadly – limited in exactly the same way.  I believe there is a key factor to consider, and the next step in the progression of learning.

The key, as I see it, is the idea that all things are intertwined.  Yes, this statement is oft repeated, in many, many ways.  There are well known eastern philosophies which take this a step further, saying that “all is one.”  Leaving the metaphysical aspects aside, we can say that – in a very practical way – everything we will ever see or do is part of a single network of cause and effect.  Newton’s third law tells us that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  I’m afraid that, while Newtonian physics are certainly very useful, they are mired in the simple world of one-to-one relations.  Schrödinger improved upon Newton by introducing probability.  Even so, the material world of physics has yet to catch up with the reality of human experience.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy took the next step, with his introduction of System Theory: “Biologically, life is not maintenance or restoration of equilibrium but is essentially maintenance of disequilibria…”  We can visualize each of our lives as a node in an immense network, like a spider’s web.  We are always in a state of tension, with forces moving in all directions.  Any motion in one vector initiates motion in all other vectors.  Since one thread leads to another, and all are interconnected, it is the case that any motion on any vector effects all other vectors – including itself – through the web.

When I say that I burn my finger on the stove, it can be inferred that this event is a part of a long chain of events, which in turn begins a long chain of new events.  That should be clear enough, and you are probably thinking something like “Yeah, so what?  The simplified view is just a shortcut, such that we don’t have to include discussion of the entire universe in the mention of every burned finger.”  For simple events, that may be true.

However, life is not always simple.  As an example, let’s consider my tummy.  Apart from the interesting image of a group of people contemplating one navel, I actually mean it literally: I am a bit fat.  Many of us are in the same boat.  We would like to trim down a bit – either to look good at the beach, attract a good-looking mate, fit into that old wedding dress, or simply to be healthier.  In any event, I want to lose the muffin top.  So what can I do?   Obviously, this question is not answered by one-to-one correspondence: “If I do not eat that donut, I will not be fat.” Anyone who has attempted this feat has probably learned that it is not that simple.  There is not a single cause and effect relationship.

Adding probability and multiple causation helps:  If I stop eating donuts, and exercise 3 times a week, I will probably lose weight.”  This is better, but I believe that it is more complicated than that.  Sure, it is true that we could probably rephrase that sentence to arrive at something that would seem to work.  However, I submit that any proposition addressing the issue of losing weight, phrased in the form “If ______, then not fat” will leave gaps which can be exploited by the rules of probability and human nature.

This condition has a variety of reasons for it, such as:

  • Not every rule applies in all cases
  • Other factors effect this issue
  • I may not stick to a diet
  • My metabolism might change
  • I could transfer donut cravings to chocolate

The list goes on and on, and can be expanded indefinitely.  We are constructed of events in tension, pulling and pushing in a zillion directions at once.  Any attempt to one of these nodes effects the entire web.  This is not, as it might sound, so much a process of amplification as it is a process of dispersing.  Efforts which are applied to an individual node are conducted to other nodes, it is true, and we often see effects reaching further than expected.  However, at the same time the effects can be attenuated by distance, or diluted by the actions of other nodes.  My belly stays round because my limited actions are lost in the network.

So how do we overcome this limitation, such that we can take meaningful action?  If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve shifted the topic from learning to action.  This was no accident.  While the conclusions I am approaching are about action, the activity to be employed is a process of learning.  The if-then, probabilistic, interconnected world is not good enough.  What I need is an evolutionary world – a world of incremental change.

My strategy to drop a waist size in this world might look like this: I will avoid donuts.  I will arrange my routine such that donuts will be inconvenient.  Instead, I will satisfy my sweet tooth with expensive Danish pastries (and eat fewer, because of the expense.)  I will make new friends who do not like donuts, and learn about their point of view.  I will acquire comfortable walking shoes, and save money by parking several blocks from the office.  Maybe I can meet new people on my walk to work, maybe find a new coffee shop.  Instead of using butter and sour cream on my potato, I will try it with one or the other.  Perhaps over time I can eliminate both altogether.  I will look for ways to increase my blood flow and metabolic rate – using stairs instead of elevators, carrying firewood by hand instead of the wheelbarrow.  I will disassociate from those who are lazy, and have bad eating habits.  I will drink more water.

Eventually, I will measure my waist – but not right away.  The fat does not matter right now, because what I am doing is not losing weight.  First, I am changing the web.  I am altering my immediate vectors, and waiting for them to stabilize.  Once new habits are formed, then it is time to look at the effects.  And we know the probable effects of good habits – I will slim down.  Maybe a little, maybe a lot – it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter how much movement there is, as long as it is in the correct direction.  The local changes to the system are all that matters.  If the system remains unchanged, so does the local node (my belt size, in this example.)  We can push a node around all we want, but it is likely to return to the same place unless the network changes.

To state this another way: The act of executing change is a learning process.  We make adjustments to things that relate to our desired effect, then learn the result.  Rinse, repeat.


Posted in Essays, Logic | Leave a comment

To Change the Channel

I listen to the radio every morning.  As I drive, I get news, commentary, interviews with interesting people, and sometimes a bit of music.  It’s an hour of contemplation, introspection, and peace which serves to enhance my sanity and overall wellbeing.  I’ve come to know and love the hosts of the morning programs and, in a way, to consider them friends.  They’re like passengers in my car – guests whom I can tune-out with a flick of the channel button.  I don’t know what I’d do if I got a job closer to home.  Would I drive around the countryside for an hour, listening to the radio programs that I like so much?  Probably not.  Perhaps I could record the programs, and listen at my leisure.  But that just doesn’t seem right; that just isn’t Radio.

I listen to Travis T. Hipp on KVMR at 7:30AM.  I plan my mornings accordingly, making sure that I am on the road and off the phone, tuned-in and ready at the appointed hour.  It’s a short program, him providing perhaps five minutes of commentary.   He usually seems to have unique angle on current events, and almost always cracks me up.  I don’t know anything about his sources, but he always reports on the lesser-known aspects of top news stories, which he uses to compose his low-key tirades.   The radio-show host-du-jour calls Travis by phone at the appointed hour, introducing him “With all the news you never knew you needed to know until now.”  He opens with something like “Well, it looks like congress did it again…” or “Things are really falling apart in the Middle East…” and probably delivers his signature line, “Sometimes I wonder, other times I’m sure.”  The good ol’ cynical optimist, Travis T. Hipp.

Usually there is music right before Travis.  In radio-studio lingo, this is “bumper music,” because it provides a cushion between the end of the preceding segment and the beginning of the next.  Bumper music is very important – not only because dead-air really sucks – but because it can clue the audience in to what is coming up.  Thursday’s radio host would always play the same song.  It was a jazz piece, with a repeating theme that lasted for several minutes, and an improv section in the middle.  The very first time I heard it, it annoyed me.  I heard the melody, and thought it might be a variation on Dave Brubeck’s classic, Take Five.  After listening for a minute or so, I saw that it was not the same, but very similar, including similar changes.

I heard the same song again the following week, at about the same time of day, and the week after.  Each time I heard it, I felt a little bit more annoyed.   I began to hum the Brubeck song back at the radio during this bumper music, trying to overpower it.  The two melodies sort of fit together, which actually made me more upset, as it seemed to prove that the song was in fact a rehash of the classic piece.  I began to talk back to the Thursday radio host, telling him this song was appalling, asking why he would continue to play it.  I started to resent the fact that he ignored my rising wrath.  Stewing in impotent fury, I changed the channel – only to switch back quickly in fear of missing Travis.

Over the following months, I grew to hate the song.  I no longer tried to evade it – nay, I tuned in early, and waited in anticipation to find out if, on this day, my foolish passenger-of-the-airwaves would indeed present his vile and ill-conceived bumper music once again to my exposed and allergic ear.   I began sowing the seeds of a grass roots campaign against the song, pointing out the obvious plagiarism of Take 5 – my all-time favorite piece of music – to my daughter, and then my wife, on the occasions that they happened to ride with me of a Thursday morning.  I knew I needed to take action.

I decided to write a letter to the foolish radio host.  I knew I could not do so on a Thursday morning, as my ire was sure to show through my words, and I did not want to appear rude.  So I waited until Friday afternoon, when I could calmly communicate with the man in the radio, and direct his attention to the error in his ways.  I emailed him:

Dear sir,

Every Thursday morning, I hear the same song a few minutes before Travis T. Hipp.   I don’t know the name of the piece, but it’s an obvious rip-off of Brubeck’s “Take 5.”  I suppose some people might like the song – the solos are very good – but, for me, every time it comes back to the main theme it’s like chewing tin-foil.  I think really hard at the radio, “If you want to play the Brubeck song, just play it!” hoping the musicians will hear me.  This perversion of the classic melody is just wrong.  I would rather sit and pick stickers out of my socks than hear it one more time.


I re-read it several times, editing out my more inflammatory remarks, before I settled on the text above.  Using the closing salutation “Namaste” seemed like a nice touch – to encourage a feeling of peace between myself and my invisible friend.  I clicked the send button, and waited for a response.

I never heard back from the radio host.  All week long, I wondered – is he angry?  Will he defend himself on the radio?  Humiliate me publicly for daring to criticize his choice of bumper music?  On the other hand, perhaps he is spending a few days listening to both pieces of music, evaluating my comments, and preparing to respond in a deeply informed manner.   I just knew there had to be something going on at the other end of the radio channel.  This silence had to mean that my arrow had found its mark.  I waited (impatiently) all week, until Thursday morning, and then mentally gathered around my car radio to listen to the response.  At 7:30 sharp, on came Travis T. Hipp.  There had been a different song – a country western song – played before.  The bumper music had been changed!

My elation seemed to bathe the inside of my car in a nebulous glow.  I had been victorious!  It was incredible!  I had overpowered the will of the radio station with a single email!  How easy it had been, to simply reach out and change the channel (to re-coin an old phrase) for the betterment of all who would listen to it in the coming ages.  I made the drive to work that day in the best of spirits, intermittently thanking the Great Architect of the Universe and humming Take 5.  It was a good day.

I’d almost forgotten the whole thing by the following week.  It was a routine Thursday: drop my daughter at school, get my morning tea, and tune-in to KVMR.  I was listening to Travis, as usual, when I realized that the host had played a different song this week.  It was not the country song of the week before, nor was it the Brubeck facsimile.  This was some other, random song.  I felt a slight twinge of guilt that I could be partly responsible for this indecisive behavior.  Was it really so hard to come up with bumper music?

The following week it was yet another song.  I was disappointed.  In fact, it was worse than that: I actually began to miss the rip-off tune.  I had gotten sort of used to it, and in a Pavlovian way the routine of hearing that song had served to heighten the anticipation of my favorite news bite.  I still felt that the song had been complete garbage, but it was preferable to have it than simply some haphazard track in its place.  My elation of two weeks prior was wilting, to be replaced with a kind of melancholy unrest, rendering my morning drive just a little less rosy.

By the fourth week of this shabby musicology, I was depressed.  I needed to take action; to undo the wickedness I had wrought.  I called the station.

“Hello?” I recognized the voice – it was him!  To my surprise, the host of the show had answered personally.  I had expected a receptionist, or some other office staff, but apparently the number I had called rang directly into the studio.  In subdued tones, I explained who I was, and how the last few weeks had given me cause to repent.   I expected some kind of retaliatory tirade, or at least a few snide remarks about my earlier overt criticism.  Instead, the man laughed.  “I kinda like the song I was using, but I figured if it was bothering my listeners, I’d take it off.  I haven’t settled on a replacement yet, though, do you have any suggestions?”

I was completely unprepared for this.   Perhaps I should have offered some alternatives when I emailed him in the first place.  It would have made a certain kind of sense to name a song and say “hey, I think this would be a better song than the one you play”, rather than simply demand that my victim cease and desist without recourse.   Further, the manner and tone of his question spoke to the attitude of this radio host: he didn’t really care all that much, one way or another.  The man had not given it much thought, beyond responding to a listener’s comments, and he had certainly been passive to the months and months of progressively seething rage I had experienced.  I was unprepared, and I could offer only this: “The song really isn’t all that bad, why don’t you go back to using it?”

The following week found me tuning into the usual station, at the usual time, and having the usual enjoyment of the regular show.  Sure, that bumper music reminds me of Dave Brubeck’s classic Take 5, but it wasn’t exactly the same.  In fact, the solos are certainly unique – a real master work of instrumental skill, I’d say.  And what if it was reminiscent of the earlier song?  How many different melodies are even possible in the world?  It should be no surprise that, over time, great minds would think in the same refrain.  And why should it bother me?  I’m not even much of a Jazz fan, really – I think Take 5 is the only song I can actually name in that genre.

In the weeks immediately following my talk with the radio host, I found myself humming along with the melody I had once shunned.  It was a nice feeling, like a little bit of weight had been removed from my belt, as I swam the surface of my daily waters.  Such is the power of song that a good jingle is infectious, and sticks with you through the day.  And today, after some years have passed, I hear the song, and I wonder:  “What was it that bothered me so much?”  But I can’t really say, and I suppose I’ll never know.

Posted in Non-Fiction, Stories | Leave a comment