Sunday, March 18, 2018

Death Is All Around

Dead bird

The other day I was pruning back the two Ficus trees in the apartment. They tend to reach for the sun from nearby windows, which means that the branches further away lose their leaves and become dry and spindly. I had to cut back the dead branches and turn the pot a bit to even out the growth.

As I was doing this, I knew the tree’s response would be to send out new shoots from the clipped branches, fork and spread them, and continue growing. But as I made each cut, I also remembered a science fiction story from my childhood, about a man who invented an extremely sensitive microphone that could record the cries of a tree as it was being cut down or grass as it was mowed. Now, I know that in order to feel pain and cry out, an organism needs a central nervous system and a locus in the brain where pleasure and pain can become registered in consciousness. The best a tree or any other plant can do is drip some sap—a result of capillary action beginning in the roots—and let that stump of a branch wither for lack of leaves and photosynthetic nourishment. In this case, the branches were mostly dead already, although some of them had a small and inconveniently placed twig still sprouting foliage that was brushing up against the wall or the curtains, and I was simply performing some elementary bonsai for aesthetic purposes.

That old science fiction story, however, got me thinking. Even a confirmed vegetarian—who laments the slaughter of cows and pigs for food, because of their death agonies—is comfortable with raising crops for their food value. They don’t rely on acorns that have already fallen from the tree, as Native American tribes in California did for their grain supply. And our farmers don’t pluck the ears of corn and then leave the plant standing to reproduce and sprout new ears next spring. No, we kill plants by the thousands of millions and never stop to think about their piteous cries too subtle for our human ears to hear or any of our instruments to register. The American farmer and all agriculturalists throughout history are wholesale merchants of death.

On this same morning, I was in the living room doing my exercise regimen when I noticed a mourning dove on the window ledge. We have doves all over the woods in back of the apartment complex, but this was the first time I had seen one so close. It was looking around, walking back and forth, and otherwise appeared nervous. Occasionally it would glance straight up into the sky. It occurred to me that we also have three red-tailed hawks that live on our hill, and occasionally I find loose feathers, sometimes clumps of them, when walking in the woods. The dove might have been using the ledge to protect itself from attack from above, because the angle between the sill and the window glass was too narrow for a clean kill. Only when another dove flew down from the ledge of the apartment above mine, and the first dove took off to follow, did I realize that all of its walking back and forth was waiting for some sign from its friend or mate.

While I was looking at the dove, I could see that it really was a work of natural art. Whether you believe in intelligent design by a living god or blind creation through evolution adapting random mutations into systems that function perfectly in the real world, you have to marvel at that small package of life. It struts, it flies, it scans the skies, and it has relations with other doves. Those tiny, beadlike eyes can measure angles, calculate distances, recognize shapes, and perhaps even register some of the beauty of the world. This wondrous being is initiated by the fusion of sperm and egg, gestated in a shell, raised in a nest by parent doves, learns to fly, finds seeds and grows to maturity, finds a mate—if it’s lucky—and eventually gets bounced from on high by a hawk and dies. All that articulation, all that recognition, that beating heart and bright eye—snuffed out in a minute by a chance encounter. Maybe some doves live to old age, get arthritis, and break their necks falling off a branch. Maybe some get cancer or another illness and die suffering in the long grass. But for most, it’s pounce and gone!

Some thirty years ago my wife brought home a box of books and papers from the library where she worked. As a result, we have developed a lingering infestation of silverfish. About every six months I will see one boldly scuttling across the hardwood floor, appearing like a moving scrap of dusty tinsel. I always smack them, and then I have a smear of paste and a scrap of damp paper. But even as I am killing it, I marvel at the articulation of this thing that is barely alive. It moves, it seeks light and shade, it knows that it’s being attacked when I miss, and sometimes it scrambles and flees successfully. It’s not the jeweled mechanism of an ant or a beetle, but it works on the same principles. I almost feel ashamed to kill them.

This planet is covered with life. I’ve said this before: everywhere you look that isn’t bare rock, dry sand, or blue sky is teeming with signs of life and the DNA that propels it. Some of this is easy to see, like forests filled with birds and deer or fields full of grasses, wildflowers, and burrowing rodents. Some you have to search out or imagine, like microbes living in the soil or plankton in the ocean. And some you can infer from its handiworks, like anthills, coral reefs, and skyscrapers. All of it is bursting with natural energy, all of it growing and reproducing. And all of it will die. Even the supposedly immortal jellyfish that are going the rounds on Facebook now will one day find a predator or a boat propeller and turn back into their component molecules.

Death is not the enemy. If none of this life ever died, by now the planet would be a hundred feet deep—or more—in struggling animals, the seas would be solid with fishes and the sky black with birds. Since all that is impossible, some natural mechanism would have intervened to end reproduction on this planet. Immortal creatures would live out their lives and never change. For more than three billion years that was indeed the state of things: bacteria growing and dividing, growing and dividing, never dying except by happenstance, and never much advancing. Then about five hundred million years ago, something happened and life exploded in thousands of multi-celled forms—the Cambrian Explosion, which laid the groundwork for what we have today. Since then, we have had periods of intense growth and diversification, followed by periodic extinction events that wipe the board clean and clear the way for life to go in a different direction.1

But all of it dies, every time. If it’s lucky, an organism gets to breed before it dies, and new life follows after it. And if it’s very lucky, that new generation carries mutations that might, just might, allow its progeny to survive when the climate or the food supply or the predator-prey balance changes and the organism’s progeny need to adapt. But that’s still a matter of chance. And for the organism that is alive right now, death is certain.

This is not a tragedy, not a thing to dread. Because death is all around, we know that the time right now is precious. Because life adapts and changes, we know we will never again see the exact mix of animals, plants, and even microbes that we can observe and catalog right now. This planet is alive because the things that make it interesting can die. And this is a blessing.2

1. Think of the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, which cleared the path for the rise of mammals and, eventually, humans.

2. I didn’t intend this to be morbid, but it has been six months since my wife of forty wonderful years has died, and I am still reverberating with the loss.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Meaning of Life, Again

Piano keyboard

I’ve written about this before,1 mostly from a scientific and technical perspective. Now, I’m thinking more along spiritual and/or philosophical lines.

Any question about the meaning of life is a product of our own brains, which appear to be alone among the animals—and that would suggest among all the other life forms on Earth—in having the capacity to think both abstractly and self-referentially. We can think about things that are not immediately in front of us, not cued by any sensory input or by our immediate life situation, and sometimes not even related to any of our experiences or memories, perhaps not even related to any other thing in the universe. And we can think about ourselves, examine our own motives, call up our memories at will, and even place ourselves and our personal reactions in imagined, hypothetical, and future situations.

We can live, second by second, in all three tenses—past, present, and future—and modify each of them with linguistic moods such as the subjunctive. So, instead of having to say, “I will do that,” our pan-temporal perspective allows us to say, “I would do that, if this other thing were to happen.” We can hold a thought that is concerned simultaneously with something that may occur in the future and with something hypothetical and contingent upon other factors that may or may not occur in the future. That’s pretty complex thinking. Animals—not even our closest mammalian relatives—don’t do this, and that means the plants and protozoans probably don’t, either. Our thinking processes and our perspective are unique.

We humans seek a meaning to life because we are capable of thinking about and examining hypothetical alternatives. What was I like before I was born? What will I be and where will I go after I die? Why am I here? Am I living up to my personal potential? Will I ever achieve the dreams I had when I was young? Is what I’m doing now with my life important enough to satisfy the expectations of my family and friends? Will it satisfy the expectations of people I don’t know personally, the general public beyond my intimate circle, and future generations? Will I be remembered after a death that, although I don’t like to think about it, seems to be coming for everyone and may one day come for me?

Animals do not have these thoughts. All of these questions are based on hypothetical alternatives to what we can immediately sense and know. They are even outside the realm of what we can remember from past experience. My dog does not question her life. She can be disappointed if I must cut short her midday walk because I have to leave for an appointment, but after a few anxious tugs at the end of her leash and a reluctant turn toward the house—because she knows how far she wants to go right now, and that she’s being shortchanged—she finds new smells to investigate on our way to the door. By the time we’re in the hallway, her tail is up and wagging again.

Even a dog that is suffering base cruelty—whipped by an angry master, left out in the hard sun or the cold rain, shut in a small space without the society of its pack for hours or days at a time, or even starved—does not begin to question its existence. It may be depressed, with head drooping and tail down. It may feel that it has lost the love of its pack and its alpha—that formerly loving and now cruel master. The dog may assume that, as caresses and treats once came when it acted to please the alpha, it has now somehow done something displeasing in order to deserve such hard treatment. A formerly loved dog who is maltreated or abandoned can recognize the change in its situation and react with confusion and despair. But even then, the dog will not ask why it was born into this life. And it will not commit suicide because life has become something different from what the dog once experienced.

Animals do not question their lives and its meaning. They do not feel they were born for a purpose; they simply live. If life has a meaning for animals—and plants and protozoans—it is written into their genes, which means it is part of the physical structure that organizes their brains—if they have any—and responds with innate drives keyed to their hormonal secretions. They eat because their stomachs are empty and chemical cues tell them they are hungry. They seek out sex—without thinking about its reproductive effects or future generations of posterity—because certain smells and pheromones stimulate their glands. They try to get out of a cage because they are used to open and familiar spaces, and the bars keep them from their known space. They resist a steel trap because the bite of the jaws is painful. And when death inevitably comes, they go quietly because they don’t think about alternatives.2

Socrates is supposed to have said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But Socrates was a philosopher and a human being. He lived in the dreamtime that all of us humans—and perhaps our closest primate relatives—inhabit. It is a realm of expectations and possible alternatives. It is a place that demands meaning. But life itself—as lived by every other animal, plant, and protozoan—is a chemical mystery without inherent meaning. It has its imperatives, of course: eat, move, reproduce, seek prey, evade predators, survive. But even these are unexamined premises for most of this world’s living things. They don’t have words for their drives, let alone think about them in the abstract.

We humans are the apex animal in terms of sensing, perceiving, appreciating, and examining the realms of both the abstract and our own existence. We are the first living thing in a heritage of almost four billion years—years occupied mostly by bacteria and other one-celled chemical machines—to ask that life have a meaning. We ask both from the broader perspective of the human species and from the narrow view of our own personal lives. And in both cases the answer seems to be, in the words of Colour Sergeant Bourne in the movie Zulu, “Because we’re here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.”

If life has no apparent meaning for any other species—it just is—that suggests we humans will have to make up a meaning for ourselves. If life has a purpose, other than the chemical imperatives, then we must create it.

Perhaps there really is an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God up in the sky, or somewhere beyond normal existence, who created the Heavens and the Earth and who invented life as a good idea among all that otherwise inert matter bound up in star stuff. This notion supplies a ready-made meaning. Or perhaps the simple belief in such a god—or in the nature of goodness and purpose themselves, as represented by such a belief—is enough to supply that meaning. Certainly, many people hold such beliefs and find meaning in them.

For the rest of us who don’t quite believe, and yet wonder what comes after the death that is surely awaiting us all, we are left with having to create our own meaning, both for the species and for ourselves. I tend to believe that the purpose of our big brains and their ability to sense, perceive, and wonder is to seek out and create that meaning. We are the next stage of evolution, and as the apparent inheritors of existence from all the inert matter and the non-thinking life forms in this star system, we have a duty to think up a good one.3

1. See The Meaning of Life from October 9, 2011.

2. When you take a terminally ailing dog to the vet to be put down—as we have had to do a couple of times now—it will shiver and shake. But that is not because it fears death. The animal reacts that way because the veterinary office is generally a place of painful pokes and pinches, and it smells of other fearful animals. Also, the dog senses the sorrow of its master and knows that this trip is somehow different from all others. Different is hormonally dangerous for an animal.

3. There’s a story I’ve read that says Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, had early experience as a computer programmer. In the novel, when the supercomputer Deep Thought responds to the question about “life, the universe, and everything” with the answer “42,” this is not just random nonsense. In ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) encryption, the number 42 stands for the asterisk (*), and that symbol is used as a wildcard in queries and sorts. So the Deep Thought answer was computer shorthand for “Whatever you want.”

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Structure of Music

Piano keyboard

For many years, the big hole in my education has been the structure and theory of music. I love music and have listened to many types of music—classical, rock, country, Celtic, and new age or electronic—all my life. Certain passages and even some basic chord progressions can bring tears to my eyes. But if I thought about it, I did not know why. And that bothered me.

Like most children in suburban public schools in the 1950s and ’60s, I was invited to play an instrument in the fourth grade. This was partly for music appreciation and partly a recruitment process for future junior-high and high-school bands in the district. My instrument was the trombone, and I played it badly. Although I took regular lessons, was given the étude books to work on, could read music—more or less—in the bass clef, and was theoretically committed to practicing on the instrument for an hour a day, I was still bad at it. Partly, this was because I was bored with the exercises and cheated on the practicing. Partly because, with all that training, I still didn’t know what I was doing.

For one thing, I was hazy on those sharps and flats shown on the staff at the beginning of each composition. I tended to forget that the sharp or flat way up there governed every other note on that line or space throughout the piece, unless there was a sharp, flat, or natural sign attached to single notes to counter it. I knew those leading sharps and flats had something to do with the “key signature,” but since I had no working knowledge of what a “key” actually was—other than that plonky, push-down thing on the keyboard—it didn’t mean much to me and so I tended to ignore it.

For another thing, I had no concept of chords and harmony. The trombone, like all brass instruments, is a one-note instrument: toot, toot, and toot. What you blow is what you get. If the composer wants a chord from the brasses or woodwinds, he or she assigns different parts to the different “chairs” in the section, one to play the root note and the others to chime in with the harmonics. But as a single player sitting there, all you know is you’re playing a different note from the fellow beside you.

At the same time, at home my dad was learning to play the organ—his school instrument had been the violin—and so we had a Hammond B-3 in the living room. I would dust it as part of my weekly chores, and that got me fooling around with the drawbars to make different sounds. I even learned to play one simple two-handed song, although I had no idea what the left hand was actually doing when I held down those three keys at once, but it sounded nice. So three years ago, when I decided to correct that hole in my education, I bought myself an organ—a Hammond XK-3c, because I already had a feel for how the drawbars put together each note from the different pipe-organ lengths, and also for old time’s sake—and began taking keyboard lessons. I also bought a set of lessons on music fundamentals from The Great Courses and worked my way through them.

What I’ve learned since then is a revelation as to the structure of music. Start with the keyboard, which is standard for all pianos, organs, synthesizers, harpsichords, accordions, and anything else that plays polyphonic—that is, “many voiced”—music by pressing down keys with your fingertips. Those keys represent a repeating pattern of twelve notes, seven in the white keys and five in the black. Even my childhood music training had taught me that the white keys were whole tones and the black keys half-tones: sharps a half a step up from the previous key, and flats half a step down from the next key. But why they were arranged in that pattern of two blacks together followed by three blacks was a mystery. If these were the whole and half steps, then shouldn’t there be a black key between each white key, evenly spaced out, like inch and half-inch marks on a ruler? And why were two of the white keys stuck together in that series?

No one had ever told me before about the musical modes. What we hear when we sing do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do in school is not a simple whole-note progression. It sounds like that to our ears, because we’re familiar with it. But actually, what we’re singing and hearing is a varied pattern: whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole, whole, whole, half step.1 If you play that out on just the white keys of the piano starting at C (the white key immediately to the left of the first group of the two black keys) and ending at C an octave higher, you get the C-major scale.2 This pattern of wholes and halves is called the “Ionian mode.”

The modes go back to the ancient Greeks and their music, and so the names have Greek references. They were actually refined and organized in the Europe of the Middle Ages. There are six other modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. You can hear each of these modes by playing the scale on only the white keys starting with the next higher note above C (that is, D, E, F, G, A, and B).3 The patterns represented by the other six modes just sound wrong compared to the C-major scale we’re all familiar with.

Circle of Fifths

So then, what are the “key signatures”? Simply put, they are ways to move that eight-note Ionian pattern up and down the keyboard—a process called transposing—to accommodate the limited range of most people’s singing voices. You can recreate that T-T-T-s-T-T-T-s by starting with D instead of C but only if you sharp the F and C—or, conversely, flat the G and D—and that’s the key of D major.4 Or you can start in E and sharp the F, C, G, and D. You just work your way up the keyboard, sharping or flatting notes to recreate that whole-and-half-step pattern of the Ionian mode. So, to correct my earliest misunderstanding, the sharps and flats shown at the start of a composition, the key signature, are not just random, arbitrary adjustments to the notes. Instead, the key signature transposes the familiar scale up or down the keyboard to make it easier for people to play and sing.5

Finally, I’ve learned the other mystery of my early education, chords and harmony. The basic pattern is the triad, starting with the root note and adding the third and the fifth. So, with the root in C, the third is E, and the fifth is G. That makes a pleasing sound and one richer than just the root note by itself. With the root in D, the third is F sharp and the fifth is A. And so on. But as with everything, there are complications. If you flat the third (Eb in C), you get a minor chord. If you add in the whole note just below the root, you get the seventh chord. Add the whole note above the root but an octave higher, and you get a ninth. And so on and on. All of this makes the set of sometimes pleasing, sometimes jarring sounds that so move us in music.6

The organization of the key signatures is best described by the “Circle of Fifths,” as shown nearby. Each key signature derives from the fifth note of the key that came before. So the key of C major, with no sharps or flats, yields the scale based on its fifth, G, with one sharp (F#, or, conversely, Gb), which yields the scale based on its fifth, D, with two sharps (F# and C#, or Gb and Db), which yields its fifth, A, with three sharps, and so on around the circle until you come back to C major.

The whole thing works because these various vibrations sound in the human ear—at least, one that has been culturally attuned to hear them—as pleasing patterns. It all makes sense in a mathematical and physical way. And that’s what I came to learn.

Now I just have to put in the practice to embed this knowledge in my nervous system and have it come out my fingertips. But luckily, my teacher has me working from actual songs and progressions of chords built into them, rather than the dry and mechanical études I studied with the trombone and found so boring. So teaching has come a long way since my childhood, too.

1. For simplicity in notation, music theorists use tone (T) to represent a whole tone or step and semitone (s) for a half tone. So the pattern is conventionally written as T-T-T-s-T-T-T-s.

2. Actually, each key—black or white—on a piano or organ keyboard is just a half tone above the previous key. The spacing within and around the two groups of black keys clearly shows this, with the white keys playing the whole tones and the intervening black keys playing the half tones. However, the two white keys set side by side between these two groups of black keys—at E and F above the two black keys, and again at B and C above the three black keys—yield the half tones required by the Ionian mode.

3. Why our most familiar mode, the Ionian, starts with C and not with A is a matter of both history and physics. The letter names for the notes came from the work of a late Roman philosopher, Boethius, and the A corresponded with what he considered the lowest note on his scale, then went up through the eight notes to G. He was not, however, working with the various modes as we practice them today, and his lowest note is not today’s A above middle C, also called “A440,” because it sounds a vibration of 440 Hertz.

4. Minor scales are built using the same sharps and flats as the major scale but start on the sixth note of the major. Thus, a minor scale built on C uses the same notes as the C-major scale, but starts with A and so is known as the A-minor scale. That makes an entirely different pattern of whole and half steps. No wonder I was confused as a child in the fourth grade!

5. As part of my keyboard instruction, I’ve also had to learn oddities like the “blues scale,” which represents a seven-note pitch sequence—not eight—that is quite different from the various classical modes. The blues involves minor thirds, and develops a strange pattern: whole tone, minor third, whole, half, half, minor third, whole. So with the blues in F, the scale is F, Ab, Bb, B, C, Eb, F. It’s a strange but beautiful sound.

6. Generally, to my and to most people’s ears, the major chords are bright and happy, while the minors are a bit dissonant and a little depressing. And some chords and their progressions play very well as accompaniment to horror movies.