08/22/14

Gut instincts


Ars TechnicaA story on Science Daily says research suggests our so-called “free will” may be less free than we ever imagined. We may, instead, be meat puppets ruled by the desires and cravings of the smallest symbiotes we carry: our gut bacteria.

The story opens:

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity… researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way… the authors believe this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioral responses.

Actually this is not really surprising. It has long been known that human evolution has been affected by both viral and bacterial presence, as well as having our own DNA encoded with bits from them. And recently it was discovered bacteria can encode DNA from other animals – even dead ones – into their own.

The discovery of the recombinant DNA process should have alerted everyone to the wider possibility that there may be biological analogues already. After all, it only makes sense that in any symbiotic relationship, there must be some way for all parties to communicate with each other for mutual survival. The gut is a competitive environment with numerous species, so they also need a mechanism for cooperation and communication in ways that also help keep the host alive.

Most life on the planet has some form of symbiotic relationship and many are mutually beneficial like that with our gut flora, although there are also parasitic relationships as well.

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08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

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08/17/14

Inanity and vanity


Michel de Montaigne wrote in his usual self-deprecating but sardonic way:

If other men would consider themselves at the rate I do, they would, as I do, discover themselves to be full of inanity and foppery; to rid myself of it, I cannot, without making myself away. We are all steeped in it, as well one as another; but they who are not aware on’t, have somewhat the better bargain; and yet I know not whether they have or no.
Book 3, IX: Of Vanity

That chapter is one of his longer pieces in The Essays, and like most others in the collection, is not simply focused on the subject of the title, but meanders through several thoughts and observations that may not all seem related. In this case, he ponders on his estate, his old age, his government service, on writing (his own and that of others), his talents, his father, memory, friendship, travel, and more.

The quote above is from the 1877 edition, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Hazlitt. Donald Frame, in his 1957 translation, renders it as this, somewhat more clearly:

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those whoa re aware of it are a little better of — though I don’t know.
Quoted in Bakewell: How to live; A Life of Montaigne.

I do not have the Screech translation yet, to compare this quotation with his rendition, but the book is on order from Amazon and should arrive next week. According to the New York Review of Books, it is more modern than Frame: “Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style…” We’ll see if that’s true, when I get my hands on it.

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08/16/14

The First Dark Age


End of the Bronze AgeThe causes of the first “Dark Age” have long been the topic of debate among historians and archeologists. Many ideas and theories have been put forward; none have found universal agreement. It’s commonly referred to in scholarly circles as “The Catastrophe.

Earthquakes, drought, migrations (or the more popular single-people migration theory), volcanoes, barbarian raiders, climate change and systemic collapse have all been blamed for the sudden collapse of civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean over a short period of time.

While any one of these may account for particular cities, or even a small geographical region, it is difficult to apply those theories collectively to the collapse over such a wide area. There is simply no evidence to connect the incidents of collapse.

Nor do they explain why the empire of Egypt and Assyria, both on the periphery of the larger area affected, seem to have escaped relatively intact from the collapse – although Egypt’s might and influence came out of the period severely diminished.

Whatever the cause, over a period spanning roughly 50 years of the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, many civilizations in the Aegean basin and southeast Asia underwent a violent collapse. Dozens of cities and settlements were destroyed or abandoned. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of fire and destruction in many of the remains of the great ancient centres. There are signs of “instant cities” – settlements that sprang up suddenly in previously unsettled areas, suggesting they developed from a mass of escapees bonding together for safety after fleeing a disaster.

It would be centuries before most of this area rose again to similar prominence. It was a Dark Age for the eastern Mediterranean.

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08/15/14

Happiness & Fulfillment


There are ten methods for meditating on the world, begins one scroll in the 1,300-year-old collection of Tang-dynasty sutras from Xian, China, that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

I realize that sounds like the opening of a New Age piffle book, but the sutras were actually discovered in a cave near a Buddhist monastery, in the far western region of China, in 1900. The scrolls were looted and sold to collectors and academia, and until 1998 were pretty much lost. Now the public can read a few selections from them in the book, The Lost Sutras of Jesus, by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.

The majority of the scrolls were Buddhist texts from the seventh century CE. Only eight of them were Christian – the efforts of early Christian (Persian) monks who arrived in Xian along the Silk Road, bringing their faith into contact with both Buddhism and Taoism. Those sutras, their legacy, are an intriguing blend of Christian and Buddhist views.

It’s also reminiscent of the Epicurean views I’ve been reading about in classical works.

The story of the scroll is a fascinating history and I would dearly love to read much more of these works, but there are few printed sources I have been able to find.

The cross-pollination of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity has not been very well explored, and I would like to learn more. I have read there were Buddhists in Alexandria in the first century CE, whose ideas and writings may have influenced the Gnostics. Did their faith also influence early “orthodox” Christians?

And how much did Christian beliefs influence Buddhism in this era? I simply don’t know, but there is a glimmer of light in these scrolls that suggests both faiths were malleable enough at that time to absorb something from the other. Too bad there was a “hardening of the faith arteries” that prevented more sharing.

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08/14/14

Testing a Homeplug-Powerline Network


DlinkI’ve had some wireless issues for quite some time now. There are dead spots in the house – a central wall has metal ducts and a gas fireplace, which are beside the laundry room with its metal-enclosed washer and dryer. About 5-6m of metal interfere with the wireless signal. The modem is attached to the cable, which comes through the north side of the house, and there are no other active cable outlets in other rooms (there are outlets for cable, but they’ve never been properly connected).

Plus the ducts and pies in the basement and the metal front door interfere with the signal out of doors, making it difficult to get good reception in a large portion of the yard – including our favourite summer sitting location; the newly rebuilt front deck.

 

And just to confound matters, my Acer Aspire laptop has the annoying habit of losing its internet connection – while all my other wireless devices are fine – although it can see other networks nearby and even connect to my modem. Just not the net.

I’ve looked at all sorts of solutions, from wireless extenders and bridge routers, to rewiring a large portion of the house to accommodate moving the cabling to allow the modem to be placed closer to the laptop. I’ve moved the modem a few times, but the reception has only improved indoors – out of doors it remains unstable.

There is often a 10-metre ethernet cable running across the floor between laptop and modem when I want to be sure my access isn’t interrupted. Susan hates it. It’s a trip hazard and looks hokey.

This week I decided to try a different approach (a suggestion from Neville on Facebook): a powerline (aka homeplug) network extender. It’s a whole area I knew nothing about before this week, except for the vague understanding that the network connects via the AC power lines in your home.

Basically you plug one adapter into a wall socket and attach it to your modem via a (shorter) ethernet cable. They you plug in a second adapter somewhere else in your house, preferably close to your computer, do whatever the device needs to establish a connection (in my case, push a button). When they connect, you plug another (shorter) cable into the adapter and your computer.

But which one? Which type, which standard, which brand, which feature set? That’s what I spent most of my past few days studying. Reading reviews, technical papers, speed tests, manufacturers’ claims. Prices range from $40 to almost $150 for the minimal two adapters. Why the difference and would it really matter to me?

In the end I went low-end rather than cutting-edge. I bought a D-Link “PowerLine AV 500 Network Starter Kit (DHP-309AV) from the local Staples store. Took all of two minutes to set it up, another minute to connect cables and my laptop was connected to the internet.

And if it proves itself in the upcoming months, I may look at the new models due out this fall to upgrade to the new AV2 standard, and get some extra ethernet ports strung around the house.