An Anti-Christmas Carol

Another useless parasite.

Tomorrow will be June 25, the orbital opposite of December 25, and making us nearly as far as possible astronomically from the spirit of Christmas as we can be. Seems appropriate then, with the current sentiment pervading our leadership these days regarding the poor, the young, the sick and the elderly, and the changes proposed to the way our society treats these people. It therefore seems appropriate to publish here an excerpt from Dicken’s classic story, reflecting what seems to be the mood of the times, which is to tell Tiny Tim that he is a freeloader, and needs to pull himself up by his bootstraps and get a job. Or just go away and die.

Merry Christmas, Everyone.

A Christmas Carol – Marley’s Ghost

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”


The Seven Billion Species of Man

As of the moment of this writing, there were currently 7,509,287,532 people alive on the planet. (source: World Odometer). Each of these people include themselves as members of various subgroups, such as Men, Women, Caucasian, Native American, Bipolar, Russian, Spectrum Autistic Syndrome, LGBTQ, Republican, Democratic, Episcopalian, Atheist, USC Alumni, Rotary Club, ISIS, Down’s Syndrome, and others.

Each of these groups has their own collection of stories, which include origin stories (how they came to be), membership stories (who is qualified to be a member), enemy stories (with whom they have fights and why), and stories about why their group is so much better than all the others.

All of these stories are important to the members of those groups. Some stories are so important to those members that they are willing to fight and die for that story. Even those whose stories are to anybody outside the group clearly arbitrary (such as Professional Football Team fans), people get into mortal combat over a bad referee call, with another human being whose only difference is the color of the shirt favored by that team over the other.

Recently there have been many arguments (especially in academic circles) around the questions of ethnicity, sensitivity to other cultures, and offenses (real or imagined) taken by somebody when someone else “appropriates” the others culture, tribe, race, religion, or other group membership. This includes such things as “whitewashing” a dramatic or historical role (e.g. by a person associated with one “race” portraying an historical character of another “race”). These controversies become especially heated when one of the groups has historically been oppressed, attacked, targeted for genocide etc by another group in power.

The tragedy of all these stories, both of the oppression, the suffering, and of the later push-back by the oppressed groups, is that they are all based on stories, as as stories, they are fiction, and as fiction, they are far from the actual reality on the ground, at least to the best  that science can discern.

Here is the story that evolutionary science suggests may be a more accurate story about the species we call Man:

Every single 'Human' born is a mutation, and may even be a brand new species.

In other words, none of us are the same, and any allegiance to a particular group, religion, ethnicity or other collection of humans is arbitrary, and made up only of stories, nothing more. The earth is not populated with over seven billion humans. It is populated with over seven billion individuals, each a unique experiment of Nature, bearing only incidental similarities in physical, sexual, psychological or other features with others which whom they may share social or familial descendancy.

This is the general perspective I have been gradually coming to embrace. Perhaps it is easier for me, because I have never particularly felt like I belonged to any group, race, or religion. Almost certainly it is also due to what others call “privilege,” in that because of my outward appearance of whiteness, the dominant ethnic group of society in America does not constantly harass or subdue me because of my differences. It is quite possible that I would tell a different story if my skin were a different shade. When under assault, groups of people unite out of self-defense, and have only their shared oppression to bind them together.

And yet, regardless of that fact, the evidence remains that the only story that truly seems to be the case is one, not of races and ethnicities, but of radical individualism, that we are each a member of groups which have only one member in them, and that all other associations are pure fictions, what Kurt Vonnegut Jr. called “Granfalloons“, which are arbitrary and pointless associations that bind people together. To be aware of this absurd  situation may seem depressing, but over the years, I have found it to be liberating, and ironically joins me in brotherhood with all other humans, with the great Granfalloon, based on the fact that we are all utterly alone.

And now at the end of this piece, the population has risen to 7,509,296,070 people. I would like to welcome these new 8538 creatures to the earth, and wish them each well in their unique journey through life, and to remind them not to take the stories told to them too seriously.

From Euclid to Euler to Einstein

It is of course the holiday tradition this time of year, to exchange gifts and ponder over how you would explain modern mathematics to the ancient Greeks.

In line with the latter part of that tradition, I’ve been sketching out a diagram to explain Euler’s number $e$ (2.71828…) to Euclid. It turns out that even though the classic Greek mathematicians knew all about the number π (3.1415…), they never knew about or defined the number $e$. Which is a shame, because they could have. And had they done so, they could have beaten Einstein to the punch 2500 years earlier.

Just a quick note here: for those of you who have not heard of $e$, it pops up all over the place in science, and especially when things are growing or accelerating. For example, suppose you just crossed the state line, and for some reason you thought that the mile-markers were actually speed limits, so that at the quarter-mile marker you were going a quarter of a mile an hour, and so on. Obviously you would be going pretty slow, but you are speeding up a bit with every marker. It turns out that if you obeyed the signs to the letter, by the end of an hour you would have traveled $e$ miles, and would be going $e$ miles an hour.

In any case, after much fiddling around and fanfare, here is the diagram I came up with that I think would make Euclid happy. It is a “proof without narrative”, and simply uses the classically understood conic sections (e.g. circles, and hyperbolas) to show how the numbers π and $e$ may be used to relate areas of pie-shaped sectors in two conic sections, to the linear measurements along their respective curves:

One of the things I like about this diagram is that on the one hand it shows how these two numbers are similar, in that they both provide a ratio relating the area of a sector in each type of conic section, with a linear measure, but on the other, we see how these two numbers differ in a fundamental way with successive sectors.

For circles of radius 1, its area compares with its radius squared by a ratio of π (so the pie-slices are each π/8). For the hyperbola, drawing a line from the center to the vertex of the hyperbola, a sector of area one is made by drawing a second line whose x-axis length differs from the area by a ratio of $e$. In both cases we have a ratio relating a linear measure to an area.

But at this point the similarity ends. For as we go to successive circular arcs, the areas remain in fixed linear ratios, so to produce a quarter of a circle, you have an arc-length of π/4, and so on. But for the hyperbola, to produce a sector of area 2, you need to draw a line segments whose x-axis length is not $2 * e$, but $e$ to the power of 2, in other words $e^2$. For an area of three, you need to use $e^3$, and so on.

So what we see is that the number π seems to be most commonly used as a linear factor or ratio, having to do with rotational symmetry in space, while the number $e$ seems to be used as the base of an exponent, and is involved with things that grow exponentially over time.

Which brings us to light, waves, and Einstein’s space-time.

What do cones, planes and conic sections have to do with spacetime? Suppose you turn a flashlight on and off quickly. The light pulse from that event travels out in all directions at the same speed, $c$, the speed of light. Einstein (and Minkowski) suggested that we view the event where time plays the role of a fourth dimension. If we toss out one of our three dimensions, and make the time dimension the z-axis, we can visualize the light propagating out.

So in the picture on the right, the horizontal plane represents space at time $t=0$, and the vertical dimension is time, with the “up” direction representing the future, and “down” representing the past. The flashlight has just gone off at time zero, but now the light wave is expanding out in a circle, getting larger with time. And so as it grows over (upward) time, the expanding circular wave traces out the “future light cone”. Conversely, all of the light from the past that reaches us can only come from the region below the plane, marked by the “past light cone”.

The thing to note is that these “space-like” planes are always horizontal, though they may tilt a little due to relativistic motion of the observer. Space-like planes can be identified by the fact that their “normal” line (the one perpendicular to the plane) are pointing roughly up, in a time-like direction. Space-like planes can only intersect light-cones in circles or ellipses. In no case can an observer’s “plane” ever become vertical, so that its normal vector is pointing in a space-like direction outside of the light cone. Such planes are called “time-like”, and have the property that they always intersect light cones in hyperbolas.

So I am hoping that you are starting to see how I think these two numbers $pi$ and $e$ are related, but also very different. Somehow, the number $pi$ is related more to space, and to circular rotation in space, while $e$ seems to be related to time, hyperbolic curves, and exponential growth over time.

It turns out that we can even be very specific about how $e$ and $pi$ are related to each other, but it requires the introduction of a number that the ancient Greeks would have no concept of, and that is the number $i$, the square root of negative one.

The relationship was itself discovered by Euler himself, and has come to be known as Euler’s Equation, and has also been called (at least by mathematicians), The Most Beautiful Equation in the World. I hope some time in a future post to try to explain what the equation means, but for the moment, we will just display it here and be done with it.

$$ e^{i\pi} + 1 = 0  $$

And yes, this is how I spend my holiday vacations. Having Fun ! Happy new year !


Remembering Paul Sidney

At various times from fourth grade through eighth, Paul Sidney was my best friend and worst enemy. I have now lived for fifty seven years, and Paul retains a special place of honor, being the only person on the planet that I have ever punched in the nose (or wanted to).

That was in the sixth grade, at Steven Millard Elementary school. I can’t even remember exactly what it was about, though Paul did have a biting wit and what we would now call a “snarky” attitude. Very likely it was a sarcastic comment he made at the time about a crush I had on Diane, a girl I first met in square dancing class in fourth grade. Now that I think of it this was Paul’s great talent, being one of the few people in whom I felt I could confide my deepest feelings, and who later would use those secrets to torment me in artful and insidious ways.

It has taken four years for the news to reach me that Paul had died, June 12, 2011. He was 53.

I had always thought that I would be hearing about Paul, over the years. He was a very good writer in Junior high school, and we had something of a rivalry in creative writing. He could have been a writer, or an actor, graphic artist, or any number of things. I googled his name every so often, looking for books published, lectures given, organizations he had founded, Tony-award winning musicals starring Nathan Lane written by him. Nothing. Somehow he had just fallen off of the map.

The obituary was just a note, no detail, no evidence of a memorial with thousands of friends and admirers, remembering him, telling stories, laughing, crying, people who were touched by him.

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came

After eighth grade, I and most of my classmates went to Irvington High School. Paul did not. For reasons we never learned, he went to Moreau, a Catholic High School in Hayward. I only saw Paul twice after that. Once was at the Fremont Main Library by Lake Elizabeth, and he was studying at a table, probably for a class. We said hi. The only other time was a few years later, my senior year, when I saw that he was appearing in a Halloween stage production of “Dracula”. He played Beddoes, the assistant.

That seemed appropriate. Paul always had a sense of the macabre. I remember hanging out with him, reading his creepy comic books, graphic novel versions of Edgar Allen Poe, “The Telltale Heart,” complete with gruesome beating hearts.

For some reason Paul always reminded me of Lucy van Pelt, from Peanuts. Smart beyond their years, a bit crabby, a fussbudget, but with an acerbic wit, a sabre that he could unsheathe at the drop of a malapropism. Something feminine or feline as well. Even this seventh grade photo (above) has him sporting a faux leopard-skin vest. Oscar Wilde.

Reading back on this piece, it almost sounds like our relationship was romantic, a love-hate thing, doesn’t it? I don’t know, I was a kid, and pretty much clueless. All I knew was that he was a very smart guy, and one of the few who challenged me in the world of ideas, and words. Perhaps I did love him.

Paul and his sister Kay, 2000

Paul and his sister Kay, 2000

I contacted Paul’s sister Kay, and wrote a letter (on paper, with pen), asking about Paul, and what happened. I wish I could say that I was surprised, but was not. Things did not go well for Paul. His parents divorced, and in High School Paul began to exhibit the first signs of Schizophrenia, a disease with which he struggled the rest of his life. His family tried to help him, but it is in the nature of the disease that having any sort of life as I would have wished for him is virtually impossible. He ultimately died from the effects of COPD, a congestive lung disease exacerbated by a lifetime of smoking.

As I once wrote, a small mouse in Connecticut once taught me that the greatest gift that you can give someone, is to remember them. Each life, no matter how small, touches someone. Their life matters. They had a life, they had a story.

This one is for you, Paul.

New Year’s Koan

Koan: a paradoxical question or story, used (in Zen Buddhism) as an aide to meditation and as a means to lead one to enlightenment.

The main problem with New Year’s resolutions and the reason they fail, I think, is that they are in the form of commandments. Humans are contrary by nature and any dictate — even one they have given to themselves — is doomed. The thing that motivates people is curiosity, and so in that spirit I offer up the following questions, upon which the reader (including myself) may ponder, and should any insight be gained, I am hopeful that it will lead one to a more fulfilling or meaningful life in the future. As with most Koan, I have no answer to these questions, and have no expectation for you to answer them — just to think about them.

New Year’s Koan for Atheists

Koan A1: The atheist Christopher Hitchens once said “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” Suppose a close and lifelong friend tells you one day “I have been in love with you for years.” This comes as a complete (though pleasant) surprise to you. Should you dismiss this assertion without proof? Alternatively, do you demand proof or accept the statement on its face? Does Hitchens’ principle not apply in this case? If so why?

Koan A2: There is to date no scientific evidence that Free Will exists. Does it make a difference to you in how you experience the world by assuming that you do or do not have Free Will? In other words, do you live your life “as if” Free Will has been shown to exist and that you possess it? Would it make a difference if you learned that Free Will does not exist but is some kind of illusion? Why?

Koan A3: The atheist Chris Arnade is a former physicist who worked for Wall Street before working with and photographing homeless addicts in South Bronx. He observed that in these squalid homeless places, often empty shells of buildings, bibles were always found and that this bible was all these hopeless people had to carry them through the next day or hour. Suppose your otherwise healthy spouse or child told you they’ve given up and wanted to kill themselves, and by their attitude and mood you are convinced they are sincere and would carry out their threat. As an atheist, what could you tell them that would give them some hope or reason to carry on with their lives ?

New Year’s Koan for Judeo-Christians

Koan B1: In Exodus 32:14, God changes his mind about punishing Moses’s people who had become corrupt, after Moses reminds God about the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Let us leave aside the puzzle of how an omniscient god could change his mind. Do you have enough faith to talk back to God himself as Moses did, if you believe He has made a terrible mistake? If you were to talk back, what would you say?

Koan B2: If the Judeo-Christian belief is correct, then among those nonbelievers who have not been saved from damnation are Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi, Richard Feynman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russel, Isaac Asimov, Albert Camus, Bela Bartok, David Hume, Bertolt Brecht, Heraclitus, Anton Chekov, Billy Joel, Joseph Conrad, Sergei Prokofiev, Eric Hofer, Camille Saint-Saens, George Santayana, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Dirac, Sigmund Freud, and Alfred Nobel … to name a few. On the other hand, the Emperor Theodosius, who executed children for playing with pagan dolls, and Charlemagne, who beheaded 4500 Saxons that refused to convert, were Christian and therefore saved. There is no question, this is simply something to ponder.

Koan B3: Do you believe that you have a soul, the essence of your spiritual self, and that it is eternal? If so, are the things you are doing in your life really preparing you for an infinite amount of time in which to spend your days? Remember, a billion years is a blink of an eye in the face of infinity. What will you do? And how will you keep from becoming bored beyond all measure? Knowing yourself, do you expect that a day will come in a quadrillion years in which you long for an end to endless wakefulness, in other words to Die? If so, how do you distinguish this place from what most would call Hell ? If you had a choice, would you prefer that your soul was only finite in time, say a thousand or million years ? Three score years and ten ?

New Year’s Koan For Everybody

Koan E1: If the race of man is to advance, either through evolution or divine intervention, in what way could man as a species be improved? Having answered that, is there any way in which you can begin to manifest any of that change in your own life ?

Happy New Year.

Our house, December 2013.

Grow Up!

I love a good novel, and the thing that makes a novel good is that it pulls you in, and is so well written that you are willing to suspend disbelief and swim in that world until the last page. And when it is over you wish there were more, because the story was so good.

I don’t buy most of the world’s religions these days because their stories aren’t believable, and I find myself putting down the book on page one. And after all, what is “faith” but another word for the willful suspension of disbelief ?

The world languishes from the lack of a religion for adults, who have had rich and varied life experience, a fully developed cerebral cortex and capacity for reason, complex emotion, and powers of direct observation of phenomena. A religion that has matured to the point that it admits that it does not have all the answers and is as flawed as we are, subject to revision pending new insights and findings as they come along. A story written by an unreliable narrator, who admits as much in the telling of the tale, but you don’t care because the story rings true.

The reason I don’t buy the stories told by the major religions of the world is that they sound like they were written by very small children, to whom their parents are perfect, omniscient, and will always take care of them to their dying days. What I don’t see in any of these stories is the humility of an adult, who has learned that their parents were flawed creatures at best, just like themselves, who didn’t know all the answers but tried their best, and at least has some hope that even if their own lives were screwed up, maybe the children of their creation will learn and do something good with this mangled beautiful mess of a world.

If for the moment, I buy the part of the usual story that we are created in the image of the universe’s creator, I would have to conclude that the creator was a fairly good mathematician and an artist, but like myself also mortal, and painfully limited in foresight about the consequences of one’s work, but hopeful that something good might come of all this after they are gone.

The first steps into adulthood begin when you realize that your parents are gone, and it is time for you to pick up the baton and do something yourself, with the realization that everyone else is in the same boat, and to have compassion for their own struggle with existence. If there ever was a creator, I am sure that they are long gone, but I’d like to say thanks for the good work, we will take it from here — as Ayn Rand would say — In the Name of the Best Within Us.

That is what I would call a religion for adults.

The world, with its undetermined future, is a vast blank canvas, and if there is any meaning in all of this, it reveals itself when you create something on that canvas that is beautiful.

Time to grow up.

This Floating World

mandalaWe had heard that Tibetan Buddhist monks were up in Springdale this past week, and were constructing a traditional Tibetan mandala sand painting. On Saturday November 20 we drove up to watch the monks put their finishing touches on the elaborate and delicate mandala. The purpose of this ceremony is to emphasize the transient nature of life and all phenomena. The mandala that the monks constructed here in Springdale was a representation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who embodies Buddhist principle of Compassion, and is also regarded as the patron deity of Tibet. This picture (above) is the best photo I was able to take of their final work, and it still does not capture the lush color and beauty of the painting that sat on the table before us.

monk.jpgWhen we arrived at the Canyon Community Center the monks were in the final stages of the project, under the watchful gaze of a photo of the Dalai Lama in a small altar on the stage. The large hall was filled with the sound of monks chanting and throat-singing as they concentrated on the task of dropping individual grains of sand onto the painting. The instrument that they used to do this was a thin hollow metal tube called a chak-pur, which had a sort of washboard edge that the monks would scrape rapidly with a stick.

This produced an intriguing almost musical sound, though its main purpose was to cause the sand to flow out of the end of the tube and onto the painting. In this recording you can hear the chanting of the monks and the scraping of the sticks on the washboard surface of the tubes; I like that the incidental sounds of children talking is mixed in, with the rumble of conversation. The esoteric and the divine, integrated seamlessly with everyday life. There is no difference between the two, they seemed to say, and it did not matter who you were — even the fundamentalist Mormon women, in their robin’s egg blue prairie dresses, came to watch and admire the work of these Buddhist monks.

After the monks had completed the mandala, they allowed the public to observe the painting for one hour before they destroyed it with a brush, gathering all the colored sand into a dull gray pile. Half of the sand was placed into small plastic bags for those observers who wanted them, and the rest was poured into the Virgin river. We took a small bag of the sand home with us.

Though from a distance the blended sand appears gray, on close inspection you can still see the individual colors of each grain that went into the painting. By my estimate the average grains are a few thousandths of an inch in diameter, and so the number of grains in the entire painting must have been somewhere around a hundred billion, or roughly the same as the number of stars in the galaxy. It would take a very long time to try to sort these grains back out into the original colors and reconstruct a similar painting, and of course you shouldn’t try.

It has now been five months to the day since my mother passed away. One week she was lying in a hospital bed, alive and joking with us all, full of life and colorful personality, and the next Monday all that was left was a small three by five by eight inch box of ashes. The box seemed so light in my hand; how is it possible that this gray dust was once Lucille? I do not know. All I know is, the simple knowledge that a sand painting would only exist in its current form for one hour on a wooden table in Springdale Utah on November 20 made me appreciate each moment that it existed, and made me poignantly aware of the amazing thing of beauty that it was and to appreciate what joy it brought to people in its tiny span of existence in this wild floating world we call home.

The Lost Speech

The Plaque

Just down the block from Rosie’s Pub in Bloomington Illinois, on the southwest corner of Front and East streets, there now stands a dull, grey, nondescript concrete parking structure. At the foot of this structure is a low horizontal set of equally bland concrete blocks set in a row, next to a concrete bench whose sole purpose is apparently to provide a place for weary pedestrians to sit and admire the “One Way” sign posted on the corner.

Bloomington_Il_Lost_Speech_site_plaqueNext to the bench and out of view of those weary pedestrians is a tarnished brass plaque, set in limestone brick and mounted on one of the concrete blocks. It has clearly seen better years — 90 of them to be precise — the sole survivor of more than one building that has risen and fallen at that same corner on that same street, in that same town. And the plaque will most likely still stand at that spot 90 years from now, when the parking structure will likewise be torn down to be replaced with something else equally fresh, new and imminently forgettable. On the plaque is written the following words:

This tablet marks the site where
delivered his famous
“Lost Speech”
May 29, 1856

Abraham Lincoln gave many great speeches in his time, some of great passion and transcendent language. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and others equally well known and capitalized, are filled with phrases that have become iconic. Though often spoken extemporaneously, the speeches were all duly written down and recorded by reporters and others present at these events, and published countless times. With that in mind, then, consider then the following two facts

  • The fiery speech Lincoln gave at this spot at the state Republican convention in Bloomington in 1856 was said by many present to be the greatest speech Lincoln ever gave or ever will give, and not only set the course for the fledgling national Republican party over the next century, but placed the little-known senator from Illinois on the track to the Presidency.
  • Nobody alive today knows what on earth it was that he said.

I find those two facts, taken together, to be absolutely startling — only to be outdone by the even more startling fact that I’ve managed to reach the age of 52, never having heard this story before. Indeed, if more intriguing stories like this had been told when I was a kid, I might have taken a stronger interest in my History studies. It is a great mystery and an enigma which we will never solve. And in some ways, I kind of like it like that. But in others, I really wish I knew what it was that he said.

The Background

In her book “Team of Rivals”, this historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the events of the previous weeks and months that led up to this speech. Debate had been raging for some time over the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court, led by chief justice Roger B. Taney, had decreed that the black man “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. More recently, the issue of whether the new western states of Nebraska and Kansas should be allowed to legalize the practice of slavery divided the old Whig party and ultimately led to its dissolution.

Very much like today, the political climate and quality of dialog over the issues had become dysfunctional at best, and caustically toxic at worst. Talk of secession had already begun in the South. There were many hot topics at the time, but the big issue was slavery, its continuation in the south and possible extension into the new states out west. Just one week before the Illinois convention, the atmosphere surrounding the debate had become so poisonous that South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks walked up to senator Charles Sumner with a heavy cane and savagely beat the senator until he was bloody and unconscious. Though the senator survived and was able to return after three years of recuperation, the news of the event radicalized both sides of the already polarizing issue.

The Speech

And so it was in this climate that Abraham Lincoln walked up to the stage on May 29, 1856 to deliver a speech to the Illinois Republican convention, which at the time was a motley crew of disaffected folks of many political stripes, “old-line Whigs, bolting Democrats, Free-Soilers, Know Nothings, and abolitionists.” By all reports, Lincoln’s speech was raw, fiery, and full of wrath and righteous indignation. Lincoln, who up to that time had watched his words carefully, had at last had enough, and in this speech, the gloves had come off and he spoke his mind, and used his now finely honed skill at extemporaneous wordcraft to its highest application.

The speech lasted for several hours, and grew in intensity, interrupted every few minutes by louder and louder shouts and applause and stamping of feet. According to Goodwin’s book, “So enthralled were those in the audience that the reporters cast aside their pens so as to concentrate on what Lincoln said, and the unrecorded speech has become known to history as the famous ‘Lost Speech.'” Those who had entered the hall as an unorganized collection of angry and upset individuals from various walks of life, emerged by the end of the evening an energized and united force: the first members of what became the national Republican party, which would see Abraham Lincoln elected as the 16th president.

And to this day, that is all that we know about this speech.

Over the years that followed there were a number of claims and attempts by people who attended that speech to reconstruct what Lincoln said from memory, or to point out other speeches of Lincoln’s that borrowed bits from this seminal speech. But after publication, none of these reconstructions were approved and validated by others who were there. More recently, some historians have conjectured that the text of the speech was so incendiary that it was intentionally suppressed, in fear of even further dividing the country. That such a conspiracy of many hundreds of individuals over such a long period of time could be maintained challenges credulity.

What Lincoln Said

One thing that we do know about the core of Lincoln’s philosophy was that it can be paraphrased like this: Opinions of justices of the supreme court notwithstanding, the work of the founders of this country was not finished when they wrote the Constitution: that document is just the start of a work-in-progress, driven by its creator’s vision. And that vision can be best expressed, not by the Constitution itself, but by the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which contains the phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed[…]

Doris Goodwin in her book and others elsewhere have written about Lincoln’s desire to put these words of the Declaration of Independence into codified law and practice. Goodwin quotes Lincoln in a letter to Joshua Speed:

“How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.

and regarding the recent activities of the “Know Nothing” anti-immigration party, he continued:

“When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.

(were Lincoln writing today, he would have no doubt also added “…and gays and muslims“).

Lincoln took at its word the Ninth amendment of the Constitution, which stated that the “rights” enumerated by the Constitution should not be considered exhaustive, but that there are other rights that are possessed and retained by the people. These other rights, Lincoln knew, are those unalienable rights which were not “created” by a government and bestowed upon a person, but are those natural rights which all men, all human beings possess by nature of being men, and which can never be taken from them.

The existence of natural rights is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Lincoln believed that this was a great flaw in the document, and his life’s work was to bring the laws of the states and country more in line with the idea of the universal rights of man, regardless of color, religion, or even citizenship. This was also the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr, who also quoted the Declaration of Independence, and whose realization remains to this day a work largely unfinished.

Why This Matters

All that we know for sure is what Lincoln had been saying over and over, in the years leading up to that speech, and what he said after. And that makes The Lost Speech all the more tantalizing, because knowing that up to this point he was speaking to the general public, and afterwards was delivering campaign speeches, only on this one occasion was he speaking his innermost thoughts and heart and mind to truly kindred spirits, without censorship or hesitation.

It seems that there is something in a man that when the moment finally comes to speak their true mind, and all guards have come down, the words take on a weight and a glow of authenticity that pulls you in, because at some level you know that you are witness to one of those singularly rare moments to see, for just a moment, the raw power and depth of passion that is possible within one man’s soul. That is what I think made the reporters and all others present drop their pencils and listen: because the voice and the moment demanded it.

How To Read a Poem

(after listening to one too many poetry readings)

How To Read a Poem

and for all that you keep holy please DROP
that whiny-assed sing-song whimper-will

you are reading to human beings
— do you hear? —
made of blood and clay
and sperm and shit and brains.

know your audience:

lovers who’ve fucked themselves into screaming madness
on wintry granite mountaintops, flecked with snow
amidst bristlecone pines born before Jesus

philosophers who’ve whittled matter down to quantum formula
and in one such coffee-stained scribble — for just a moment —
swore that they saw fingerprints of divinity

soldiers who’ve spit from sandy teeth
bits of friend’s livers and spleen
flung by roadside bombs in Basra

memento mori, dear reader at the podium:
you, too, will slam into a brick wall some day.

so speak from the rumbling earth,
and grumble that metaphor and essential trope
from your salivating cunt,
from your enraged cock,
and read like you’ve got a gun pointed to your head
(for you do),

and not like you’re ordering
a god-damned chamomile tea.


Gone are the seventy one boxes
of books that filled up half of
the storage Pod, her historical
biographies, my old textbooks on
Pseudodifferential operators and microphysics,
all the Pogo books

Gone are the arcane kitchen utensils,
the high-carbon cleaver I’ve
had since ’78, the
apple corers and lime squeezers I’d
used to make Cosmos on Thursdays
sipped on the balcony watching the container
ships come in from Shanhai

Gone are the strings of Christmas lights in the shapes
of pigs, and all the other pig items
people gave Gigi because they thought
she liked pigs because of all the pigs
she had

Gone are the mattresses, tables, flashlights,
food processors, crescent wrenches,
clothes, framed pictures of grandmothers,
turkey smokers, halogen reading
lamps, geometric models of archimedean
solids that used to hang from
the ceiling of my office

Gone and Gone are all the
things that kept the wood-floored
rooms of this apartment from
the echoes of footsteps

Now there is only me, and Gigi,
a couple of rosemary plants
whose branches have seen so
many roasted chickens, a philodendron,
and a bonsai juniper tree that
mom just sent, with instructions that
it needed daily watering

Now in this house
there is only air, a solid
floor on which to walk, and
we the living, we the mortal
transient things to whom existence
is a fragile thing, and not a
permanent state of being.

And Now, Only Now, is it so
clear: These things, these
foolish solid things, are of no weight.
We the living, and those that
we love in this one, wild life,
are all that have ever mattered,
and all that ever will.

–Niles Ritter (With eternal thanks to Cathy & her Writing Class)
July 2, 2008


Determined to take the pieces of my novel “The Pythagorean Concerto” (TPC) and start
putting them together. Have not had much success with this to date, and I have been
working on the bloody thing now for well over ten years, since the characters first insinuated
themselves into my waking consciousness.

I’ve decided to try establishing a morning ritual, getting up a bit early and writing at
least something every single day. One thing that Stephen King once recommended
is to simply make the time for writing, but not feel like you actually have to write.
That takes the “gun” away from your head, so you can relax. Maybe you wont write
anything one day, or a single sentence the next. Wait long enough and the flow will
happen (assuming you have anything to say).

Ah, there’s the rub.