Big Data Will Blind You

Not all of us are scientists, but all of us today are consumers of science. And I mean science, not technology. When we want to lose weight, or make more money, or find that perfect someone, we don’t go to gurus, and we don’t go with our guts. We look at the latest studies.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIt’s been said that Generation X has a deep need for data. Certainly a lot of people my age long ago lost our last vestiges of idealism, and are most interested in knowing, as pragmatically as possible, exactly what works and what doesn’t. We no longer believe in Dr. Spock’s intuitions or Oprah’s platitudes. We want to see what science says. We’re only interested in practical, proven methods. We haven’t given up trying to explain the world, but we’ve stopped trying to make beautiful, abstract theories workable. In the same vein, companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are proud to call themselves ‘data-driven’: they make no claim to being led by ‘visionaries’, but act based on rigorous analysis of consumer activity. (Of course, there are a minority of companies, such as Apple, which do claim to be led by visionaries, but these are the exception, and their stock prices are more volatile.)

Part of this zeitgeist is the modern tech industry excitement about the possibilities of ‘Big Data’, a rapidly-emerging state in which we’ll have so much data on so many people and so many financial transactions that we’ll cross some kind of singularity into perfect knowledge, a threshold beyond which we’ll find new markets, new products, and vast new vistas of profit.

Maybe so. But there’s a big pitfall that comes with Big Data. If you’re given a big pile of facts, you start to imagine that you know more than you did before; that you can just crunch some equations and run some statistics, and the numbers will tell you what to do. You’re tempted to believe that you don’t need to get the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things, as long as you have enough ‘what’.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But knowledge without understanding is even more dangerous. Here’s some examples of why.

Object Lesson: Ejectives and Altitude

It was recently discovered that languages spoken at high alititudes are more likely to have ejectives (a type of consonant which is spoken with a certain forcefulness of air pressure). This isn’t a hard and fast correlation, but it’s strongly statistically significant. Why should this be?

The author of the paper, an anthropologist at the University of Miami, suggests that it’s because of the thin air at high altitudes. It’s claimed that ejective consonants are easier to hear in low pressure areas, and the closure of the glottis during pronunciation assists the speaker in remaining hydrated.

Are you suspicious of this conclusion? You should be. The author has noticed a strong correlation, and taken a record-breaking high-flying leap to a conclusion. He has not gone out and tested hydration levels of various speakers of these languages, nor checked out how well ejectives can be heard versus other sounds.

In fact, ejectives are slightly easier to hear than non-ejectives, but they’re not the easiest consonants to hear. By far the most audible consonants to hear are sibilants, like ‘s’. (You can’t whisper an ‘s’.) Why don’t these languages have more sibilants? As for preventing dehydration, you lose most moisture when you’re pronouncing vowels, and your mouth is wide open; so you’d expect fewer vowels, not more ejectives. After all, when you speak, vowels make up about 80-90% of the length of a word.

Nor has he checked to see if there are other correlations of linguistic features with altitude. Turns out there are! High-altitude languages also tend to have objects before verbs in their sentences, and there is also a relationship between the order of verbs and objects and the order of nouns and adjectives. What are we to make of this, then? Does high altitude encourage some kinds of syntax, perhaps because of its effect on brain oxygenation? Perhaps air-starved brains are more likely to push their verbs to the ends of sentences. Or maybe the speakers of these languages rush to get the all-important predicate nouns out of their mouths before they run out of breath.

So… Many… Correlations…

That’s nonsense, of course. But in this situation, and many others, people are inclined to think that correlation must equal causation. For example, recently researchers at UPenn found (among many other fascinating things) that people who talk about sports on facebook are less likely to be neurotic. The researchers then go on to speculate that maybe playing sports helps with depression, or something like that. Well, certainly other (more careful) scientists have shown that physical activity helps with depression. But I notice that the methodology of the UPenn study makes no distinction between playing sports and watching sports. Personally, given the choice between neuroticism and watching football, I’ll take my chances with the neuroticism. Better the devil you know… But again, correlation does NOT mean causation.

So if there’s no causation involved — if high altitude doesn’t necessarily cause ejectives, and watching sports doesn’t necessarily make you happy — what’s really going on? What’s causing the correlation? Well, as far as the ejectives go, Mark Liberman at language log points out that there are hundreds of linguistic features, and thousands of languages; and in a data-rich environment like that, just by chance, there’s bound to be some correlations that don’t have any causal link at all. To understand this intuitively, suppose there are a dozen children on a playground, of which six are girls, and all the girls are in the sandbox. In this case, you might be justified in thinking that boys are avoiding the sandbox for some reason. But if instead there are a hundred children, of which three are wearing black shoes, and two of those are in the sandbox, there’s less likely a causative relationship between black shoes and sandboxes. Come back in ten minutes and maybe just the three kids in red shirts will be in the sandbox. There’s just too many variations of clothing, and too large a sample set, to draw any conclusions.

Another example was one I discussed in my Toxic Society post. Crime rates in the United States have been dropping precipitously, and up till recently no one really knew why. In the past, drops in crime have been associated with good economic times and higher rates of incarceration, so it’s been assumed that poor economies and empty prisons leads to more crime. But as the US economy has struggled through the Great Recession, crime rates have continued to plummet — not just here, but all over the world, regardless of incarceration rate. Another apparent correlation / causation link is broken.

So data can fool you into thinking you know more than you do. Even worse, you can use it to bolster ideas you’re already inclined to believe. But even worse than either of these: data can keep you from digging further to find the real causes of what’s going on.

Assume You’re Blinded

It turns out that the drop in crime rates comes not from the economy or the police work, but from environmental regulation 20 years earlier. These regulations lowered the incidence of lead in children’s brains, making them better at impulse control when they got old enough to be tempted to commit crimes. This would never have been discovered if economist Rick Nevin hadn’t followed a hunch that something was wrong with the conventional ‘data-driven’ wisdom, and undertaken a massive project to uncover the truth. He didn’t find this by looking at huge amounts of data, but by going back and questioning his assumptions.

Let’s look back at the high-altitude ejectives, and try to peel off our cultural blinders. Ejectives are found in about 15% of the world’s languages, but it so happens that none of those languages are English, Spanish, Arabic, or any other widespread language of a culture that is or was an imperialist or colonialist power. Imperialist powers tend to take over lowland areas, since they’re easily accessible from water (i.e. easier to reach with your gunboats), and generally support larger populations, are richer agriculturally, and so on. Therefore, one would expect to find languages with ejectives located in high elevations, deserts, and other relatively resource-poor and inaccessible areas.

If I’m right, then you could pick just about any linguistic feature that appears with relatively low frequency (such as object-first sentential structure, or ergative constructions) and find exactly the same geographic distribution. Object-first structure, for example, is found almost exclusively in the foothills of the Andes mountains, deep in the Amazon rainforest. Ergative languages are found in the Basque country (mountainous), the Caucasus mountains, southwestern Iran (mountainous), the mountainous Pacific Northwest, mountainous Central America and the northern Andes mountains, the largely mountainous Arctic, the mixed desert-and-mountains of the Australian outback, and Tibet. (Note that, ironically enough, there are no ejective languages in Tibet; it’s the largest exception to the ejective/elevation correlation.)

I think it would be very hard indeed to make a convincing case that sentential structure or ergativity is ’caused’ by geographic features like elevation. Of course, no doubt somebody could come up with something plausible, because cultural biases are extremely strong.

All that said: I do think geography has an effect on linguistic sounds, but very indirectly, in more subtle ways. I think generally the path leads through culture. Geography has all kinds of effects on culture, and culture has effects on language. For example, English has (for the most part) a simpler set of consonant sounds and clusters than other Germanic languages, and it definitely has a much simpler syntax and morphology. This is because England was, for over a thousand years, subject to waves of invasions by people speaking various dialects of Germanic, and what you ended up with was sort of the simplest common denominator of them all. And England was subject to these invasions because it was an easily-accessible, poorly-defended island, wealthy in land and natural resources like lumber and tin.

(Even more subtly, I think the spiritual nature of the land has an effect on the spiritual nature of the language. But this is something I feel — I don’t really have any data, big or otherwise, to back that up…)

Seeing Past the Data

So why didn’t the anthropology professor, the linguists, or the statisticians see the link between ejectives and our imperialist history? Because they were blinded by their own cultural assumptions. They simply assumed that linguistic features were scattered randomly among the languages of the world. They didn’t stop to remember that the world’s languages were part of cultures — cultures influenced by hundreds of years of imperialism, of which they are the beneficiaries. I’m not accusing anyone of prejudice. But as George Orwell said, to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

Nevin arrived at the connection between crime and lead not by looking at data, but by questioning basic economic assumptions (that environmental regulation has nothing to do with crime). I came to the connection between ejectives and imperialism by questioning common cultural assumptions. These assumptions are easy to fall into if you don’t know your history. And Big Data isn’t going to save you from that. It’ll be just another tooth on the old saw: lies, damned lies, statistics… and Big Data.

The bottom line is that, as essential as data is, it does not answer any question by itself. Whether in linguistics, business, science, or our own lives, the raw data of our experience has to be analyzed for patterns; and we’ll never see those patterns unless we have unblinkered our eyes.

Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

In Which Links are Forged and Pods are Cast

My attention has been away from this blog for a while, so I thought it might be interesting to collect some links to what I’ve been working on. Over at Faith, Fern, and Compass, for example, I’ve contributed a couple of articles that might be of interest to you:

The Sea in the Skull

Theologians and scientists agree: ritual is good for the human soul. But I don’t like ritual much. It’s probably my Zen upbringing. If ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, then perhaps my poetic-action aesthetic is too used to the haiku or koan: short, unrehearsed, improvised, intentionally subversive. But one thing I do like about ritual is the creation of a sacred space. This is about how I create a sacred space without ritual.

The Land’s Religion: Hold Her In Your Heart

Those of us of European descent who don’t live in Europe — who live, in fact, in landscapes conquered or annexed by our ancestors — do not have a simple relationship with the earth we live on… We are like a branch grafted onto the wrong tree, an organ transplanted into another body. We’re aliens in our own homes. But we cannot go back where we came from; we’d be aliens there, too. There is nowhere in the world that we really belong. So what should our relationship be?

[Continue Reading...]

The Toxic Society

I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.

But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…

Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.

“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?

Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.

But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.

But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?

It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70′s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?

Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…

Genesis: the Story of Why We’re Different

In the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to go to the Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of speakers and artists active in the “emergent Christianity” movement, and there Alison and I met up with Carl McColman, who introduced us to Mike Morell. Like most of the awesome people at the Wild Goose, Mike is a Christian who takes a dim view of dogmatic pronouncements and brimstony evangelism, and he grapples vigorously with the tensions between Biblical teachings and 21st-century reality.

For example, in his post “Evolution and the Two Trees in the Garden” he gives his personal interpretation of Genesis’s story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the apple. Mike suggests that the story isn’t really about two actual people, a talking snake, and a magic apple. Instead it’s a metaphor for humanity’s transition from pre-history to history:

But then… something happened. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but “suddenly” in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers.

This isn’t the only way of interpreting Genesis, of course. Micah Redding, a commenter on Mike’s post, suggests instead that it reflects our knowledge of our own mortality. Others have suggested that it represents the consciousness of ourselves-as-individuals, or dualistic thinking, or moral consciousness, etc., etc.

To me it seems very unlikely that humans actually underwent a physiological or neurological (as opposed to cultural) change as recently as a few thousand years ago. 6000 years ago, humans were already spread all over the world, effectively divided into separate gene pools. Any genetic change that started in 4000 BC would not have reached, say, the Aboriginals of Australia or the indigenous peoples of the Americas until a couple of hundred years ago. Did the Aztecs never (metaphorically) eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? No matter what you think the fruit of the tree represents, it would be hard to argue that.

My own take, of course, is that the Genesis story doesn’t have a “meaning” — outside of the meaning we assign it. And it’s interesting to look at the meanings we give it, because that tells us something about ourselves. In the 19th century, lots of people used the Genesis story to explain why women were second-class citizens; and some people still do that today, though thankfully that’s falling from favor. They also used to tell the stories of the exploits and treacheries of Adam’s sons and Noah’s sons to explain why there were different races of people, and why some races were better than others. You almost never hear those parts of Genesis brought up anymore. Instead, people today talk about what exactly God meant by giving us “dominion” over the world, and whether the story is applicable in some way to evolution, and what it says about the differences between people and animals, and so on.

But when you get down to it, the Genesis story is a tale about why we’re exceptional. There’s all sorts of things in there about humanity being made in God’s image, and being given special instructions, and being uniquely disobedient, and eating magical fruit, and so on; and all of these have been used to argue for humanity’s special place in the world — as well as for the male’s special place in the family, and the white man’s special place in society. Is this healthy?

It’s all too easy, all too tempting, to fall into the trap of thinking that humanity (or males, or the white race, or modern civilization, or the Western tradition) is qualitatively exceptional. All of these categories are certainly unique in some ways, but that’s true of all animals, peoples, cultures and subcultures. People (and animals) have always been sometimes brilliant and sometimes stupid, sometimes wise stewards of the earth and sometimes appallingly thoughtless, sometimes dualistic and sometimes mystic, sometimes moral and sometimes wicked, and so on. Even our technological advancement might not be unique: if we all disappeared tomorrow, almost all evidence of us would be gone in a few thousand years. What sets us apart, if anything, is scale. There are a whole hell of a lot of us being brilliant, stupid, wise, wicked, etc., all at once. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

Now, I’m all for sacred texts, and for studying them carefully, and trying to draw meaning from them, no matter how crazy they are. But Genesis should be handled carefully. History shows that it’s all too easily read as a grab-bag of excuses for powerful people to believe they’re exceptional, to believe they have a sacred mission, to believe that they can do whatever they want. So meditate on it, contemplate it, even believe it if you want; but do so with care and awareness. If I were going to recommend a creation story to believe, I’d pick one with less violence and misogyny. Personally I’m partial to the Taoist:

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and Earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten
thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

(Trans. Jane English)

Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?

The Druid and the Wild Goose II: Conversation With Doctrine

In the previous post of this series about the emergent / progressive Christian Wild Goose festival, I talked about the courage of Christians facing moral contradictions between church authority and Biblical doctrine on one hand, and the call of heart and culture on the other. The Wild Goose was a place where they could come together, face the doctrine, and engage with it.

Richard Twiss, a devout Christian of Lakota heritage, showed this spirit when spoke movingly of how the invading Europeans justified the genocide of the Native Americans by comparing themselves to the Israelites invading Canaan, a slaughter carried out with God’s blessing. Does the Good Book really condone genocide? It certainly seems so, on the face of it. Most Christians ignore that part of the book, or assume it is a metaphor for… something or other, or no longer applies, or whatever. But Twiss said no, no: we need to face this.

Twiss also joined up with Lakota dancers to perform and lead ceremonies and dances at the festival. He said, “These may seem pagan or un-Christian to you. But they are the dances that God gave my people; and I do not apologize for them.” Twiss is still working on how to reconcile the ways of his people with the Bible, which he still believes in, and which says it is the only way to God.

Phyllis Tickle, I think, summarized the problem most succinctly. Christians, she said, must answer three questions today.

[Continue Reading...]

The Druid and the Wild Goose I: Christians Courageous

At the emergent/progressive Christian Wild Goose festival this year, I was extremely fortunate to meet a new kind of Christian.

I was raised with a sort of American Zen / New Age philosophy. But growing up in the American Southeast, I met a lot of Christians. Christians I’ve known well mostly fall into a few well-defined categories:

  1. Christians who are devout, and concerned about the fate of my soul, and actively trying to convert me. For the most part, these are family members. There are, of course, devout Christians outside my family who try to convert me, but I never get to know them well, thank the gods.
  2. Christians who are devout, and probably concerned about the fate of my soul, but are more interested in me as a human being they can relate to. These folks generally avoid discussing religion with me, because that might be awkward, and imperil our friendship.
  3. Christians who are not particularly devout, or religious at all; or perhaps they’re spiritual-but-not-religious. Again, these folks are more interested in our friendship than the fate of my eternal soul (or theirs).
  4. The rarest type: Christians who are devout, but cognizant of the place of Christianity as one faith among many, and comfortable enough with their spirituality to openly and easily discuss theology with me without trying to convince me. When we discuss religion, which is awesome, we mostly tell about our personal experiences, listen without judgement, and walk rather gingerly on our common ground.

But at the Wild Goose I met devout Christians who not only discussed theology openly, and were conscious of Christianity’s changing status in western culture, but dove deep into areas where they were uncertain. That takes courage.

[Continue Reading...]

The Cat Cure: Animal Husbandry and Human Civilization

I do love my cat. Gods, do I love my cat. Cu Gwyn is his name, meaning “White Dog” in Welsh; we chose it for him because he’s a black cat, and that’s the kind of sense of humor we have.

Cu wanders the house at random, mostly sleeping or looking out the window or playing with his toys. Sometimes he comes over to us for pets. Sometimes he stalks us and attacks us. And sometimes he does things we just don’t understand. For example, he watches the birds intently, and makes odd little chirping noises, as if he were trying to sing with them. He brings his stuffed tiger to us, mewing plaintively for no reason we can see.

Cu Gwyn, Best Cat Ever

We feed him in the morning, and he thanks us by purring and rubbing his head against our hands. We pick him up and cuddle him until he gets fed up and wiggles free. We play with him, throwing his ball so that he can chase it up and down the stairs. He sleeps in our bed sometimes. He follows us from room to room — not to get attention, or to watch us, but simply to be near us. He also likes his stuffed tiger toy, although it’s a little confusing whether, in Cu’s universe, Tiger is a sibling, a friend, or maybe… something more. (But Cu doesn’t get too “involved” with Tiger, because Cu has been to the vet.)

[Continue Reading...]

Ruminations Under an Oak

On Wednesday we visited the Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina. It is a vast thing, probably over a thousand years old, twisted and hoary and huge, like a cross between a live oak and an elephant. From a short distance away, it looks like a whole grove of trees; under its boughs, it is a cathedral of gnarled, bearded wood, floored with waxen golden leaves.

Some random thoughts I had while sitting, meditating, and walking around and under the Oak:

Most trees are a tall trunk, from which spread the branches in a halo. The human body is much the same. Most animals follow a slightly different scheme: a horizontal trunk, supported by multiple limbs. Human architecture tends to follow the animal scheme, a horizontal roof supported by multiple pillars. But there are exceptions, such as the yurt, which is supported by a central pillar, and is extremely sturdy.

The Angel Oak has multiple support points, like an animal; but the overwhelming impression is more like an atom or an amoeba: its trunk is less like a central pillar, and more like a nucleus. Its branches and roots go up, down, sideways, in all directions.

This tree is a god. Literally. Touching its bark, you have same sense of something ancient, nigh-eternal, and very present, aware of you. Tolkien had it right when he described Treebeard’s eyes.

One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years. — Tolkien, The Two Towers

Time. The tree is old, old, but time is measured in changes. For something that changes little… time moves more slowly. The Oak moves slowly compared to humans, so a thousand human years is not a thousand oak years. Still, it loses and regains its leaves each year (in the spring); it is not changeless.

It is a living sculpture carved by gravity, light, air, time, and the forest around it. The branches curve and twist in unexpected ways, echoes of obstacles the tree once faced, now long-gone. For some reason, it hasn’t grown to the east. Maybe there was a building there, or another large tree, now vanished?

The tree has grown to become an axis mundi. An axis mundi, a world tree or central mountain, sits in a central location, and exerts its influence over the whole world; and the whole world is reflected within it. Just so: the Angel Oak influences the land all round it, physically and spiritually, so that the land echoes the oak; and the oak reflects the land all round it, too. Of course, this is true of all things; it is only our human manners of seeing and thinking that make some axes mundi clearer than others.

The Angel Oak and its surrounding forest are threatened by development. Get more information here.


  • Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay. -Shaw
  • And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. -Shakespeare

Moss, Mire

This week we’re in Charleston, South Carolina, visiting the Angel Oak. It’s considerably sunnier and wetter here than it is back in Pittsburgh: the earth is sandier, the blue skies paler, and the waters warmer. In the morning we went out jogging past the stately homes, the gardens lush with semitropical bushes, huge magnolias, and towering pines. In many places the yards showed the ongoing struggle of the suburbanite to grow grass everywhere, everywhere in America, even in places that would much rather be, say, a sandy beach, or a peat bog. As we ran, we ducked under the hanging Spanish moss, one of my favorite plants of the deep South.

Spanish moss is not moss at all, really, but a kind of bromeliad, related to the pineapple, and native only to the Americas. Like many bromeliads, it grows in the air, attached to other plants (or poles or telephone wires), and thrives in areas of high humidity. The island of Barbados (from Portuguese “bearded”) was named after the Spanish moss growing there.

The Proto Indo European root meu meant both “moist” and “marsh”; it is the ancestor of Latin mucus (eww) and Proto Germanic musan, meaning “marsh,” “bog,” “mire,” and a plant that often grows there: “moss.” Musan became meos in Old English and moss in modern English. Meanwhile, musan became myrr in Old Norse, which was borrowed into English as mire. These words both carry the spiritual notion if manifestation, creation, in recognition of the tremendous life-fostering power of those areas where land and water mix in equal parts. Moss also has earthiness and growth, increase; while mire has strong motion, power, movement, and suggests an almost malevolent agency of entrapment.


  • We procrastinate all our lives. Perhaps we know deep down we are immortal, and that eventually all men will do and know all things. – Borges
  • When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. -Carlyle

Rain, Wind

It’s been a cold, rainy spring here in southwestern Pennsylvania, and though there are lilies blooming in the garden and birds clamoring in the yard, I’m nevertheless wrapped under two blankets, the windows are shut tight and the rain and wind are beating at the glass.

3 AM – I am awake to the downpour, dark rains swelling the land, my bones themselves seeming waterlogged until they are spongy and wrinkled.

4:11 AM – The first bird opens his throat to swallow the dark in rising song slipping in between the rain. The land awakening, dawn remade. – Ali


Rain is probably from Proto Indo European reg, meaning “moist, wet”, related to Latin rigare (whence we get irrigate). In Proto Germanic reg became regna, and in Old English, regn, contracted to rain in Middle English. Spiritually the word indicates motion through initiation towards groundedness and release; it echoes the sentiments of many who feel that a shower is a baptism of the earth.

[Continue Reading...]

Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!


Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

[Continue Reading...]

The Pagan Knot: Why ‘Pagan’ Is The Perfect Name For Us

Scott Reimers over at Patheos wrote a fascinating post recently suggesting that ‘Pagan’ was an unfortunate name for our religion (or family of religions) and that we should change it. Why? Because, according to Reimers, it’s not really a word for what we are so much as a word for what we’re not:

The ONE defining universal trait among Pagans is that WE ARE NOT CHRISTIANS… If you think about it, the major reason that “Pagans” hang together is because it’s so nice to interact with people who don’t assume that we should act a certain way to be the right flavor of Jewish, Christian or Islamic.

He goes on to argue that this is unhealthy for our community:

Our very title pushes us toward fear and separation.  Christians verses Pagans.  Us verses Them… It is time to change this.  It is time to intentionally adopt values that are universal, re-title ourselves and grow past identifying ourselves as Pagan.

He suggests instead inventing a term — “PagAND” — which emphasizes the value of tolerance among all pagan branches and other religions:

Rather than trying to figure out what we all share, I advocate that in tolerance, we agree to celebrate NOT SHARING. Let’s make the conscious decision to defend everyone’s right to practice our own weird faith… this time including the Christians… [This would be] the difference between focusing on excluding others and declaring that we are a part of a group with an intentional focus on living the wonderful principle of tolerance.

[Continue Reading...]

Sacrifice, Sacrilegious, Savior

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!


Sacrifice comes from Latin sacrificium, meaning “sacred action” (from sacra, “sacred”, and ficium, “to do”). It was used to refer to the performance of any priestly duties. Since these duties almost always involved giving something to the gods, sacrifice came to mean, first, giving something up to Spirit, and then later (in the late 1500’s in English) giving something up in general.

As for sacra “sacred”, it derives ultimately from Proto Indo European sak, meaning “sanctify”; and it is the basis for consecrate, sacerdotal, saint, sanctum, sacrosanct, and sanctify.

Sacrifice’s primary syllable, sac, is identical with that ancient Proto Indo European root sak from 8,000 years ago. It indicates directed, balanced energy (”sa”) pouring into a container (”k”); metaphorically, then, the energy is the sacrifice, and Spirit is the container. The same phonosemantics work for the rather more mundane word sack.

Thanks to Erik for suggesting this word of the day.

[Continue Reading...]

The Tie that Binds: a Meditation on Love and War

Why are people violent?

Years ago, during a visualization meditation on physical violence (I wanted to try and get at the root of it, to understand where it came from), I found myself on a path edged with tall, tangled bushes. Their branches were bowed with huge blossoms and masses of matted leaves. The air was hot and heavy with humidity, and the sun was high and blistering. Up ahead, around a corner, I could hear voices shouting in anger.

People say that humans are violent because it’s just in our nature to be so, but for me that isn’t a satisfying answer (and there is recent evidence against it). Even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain why it’s in our nature; and it offers no solutions for preventing or mitigating violence.

Something that also puzzled me was the high incidence of violence in European culture. Europeans and European-derived cultures have become much more peaceful in the last couple of hundred years, but for a long time we were among the most violent on earth. The histories of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas are not bloodless by a long shot, but compared to the history of Europe, they’re like pacifistic fairy-tales. Of course there were wars in these areas, but they tended to be either brief periods of intense violence followed by long years of peace, or else millennia of small-scale, ritualistic tribal struggles. But from the end of Pax Romana to the World Wars, Europe has almost always been at war. You can get a visual, visceral view of this at this site, which maps all the wars and battles of human history on a single Google map.

It’s particularly odd because the religion of Europe during those two thousand years was Christianity, which preaches peace and love quite insistently. What’s going on here?

[Continue Reading...]