John Kirsch Remembered

4 04 2008

John Kirsch, an amazing instructor, zoology professor, researcher and friend, died of pancreatic cancer a year ago tomorrow, on April 5, 2007. Though I hardly knew the man outside of the Hoofer Sailing Club, I heard rave reviews of his lectures, and I thought he was a fantastic sailing instructor. He gave the impression of being a decades-long veteran of the sport, when, in reality, he had only been sailing for a year or two longer than I myself had. A friend of mine has posted a website in remembrance of him, and I felt the need to post John’s rather eloquent final lecture (ever) to his zoology course, less than a year before his death.

John Kirsch final words for last Zoology lecture

May 5, 2006 

My Final Words:

Now, were I smart, I would  stop here … but today is rather special and I need to ask you a favour.  Not only is this the last day of class for the year, and the last of my series of lectures, but it is probably also the last undergraduate lecture I will ever give, having tendered my resignation a few days ago.  Not that I am going anywhere, really:  Ill see you tomorrow at the review session, and again at the final exam.  And, so long as my joints hold out, I expect to continue instructing at Hoofers and hope see some few of you on the water.  Nonetheless, I ask you to stand in for 35 or 40 generations of students while I say a few Last Words – of apology, explanation, and thanks.

The line between Instruction and Indoctrination is a fine one, and not always obvious; if I have sometimes crossed it, it is because of beliefs passionately held; and given that the first rule of judging propaganda is to consider the source, I think you deserve to know what some of those beliefs are and why I hold them. [Certainly I have never wanted to be anyones positive role-model, intellectual or otherwise – I regard it as far more important that you learn from my mistakes rather than my successes, which in any case are quite modest.]

Einstein once said that he found the most mysterious thing about the universe to be that we can in fact understand it; and surely one of the major human discoveries was of a way of thinking that closely mirrors and explains reality – the suite of logical and experimental techniques we call the scientific method and its indispensable complement, mathematics. [I came to this conclusion after some time sampling the delights afforded by other ways of knowing, one of the glories of the American liberal arts educational system being that it gives young people a chance to do this.  But my paintings looked too much like Cézannes, my poetry was too much like Matthew Arnolds or really bad Shakespeare (one fellow creative-writing student remarked that an elaborate blank-verse play I wrote would make a very good silent movie), and so I became a scientist, partly by default but primarily because it became apparent that science offered the best and surest path to true knowledge.]

[Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, is said to have lain moaning Whats the answer?  Whats the answer? – then suddenly sat upright and asked Whats the question?  Science is about framing questions, and although it is fashionable – and logically correct – to say that we can never prove anything, I think that is intellectually wussy: on a recent Nova episode about the Cassini mission to Saturn, which successfully delivered a probe to the surface of Titan, a NASA scientist compared this remarkable accomplishment to tossing a basketball from Boston through a hoop in Los Angeles – or maybe it was farther – without even touching the sides!  Pretty good for provisional and supposedly obsolete Newtonian mechanics.]

As a biologist I find our ability to understand the universe quite unsurprising: if we did not – in general – perceive the world realistically, wed probably soon be dead!  As is often the case, a poet – in this case, Wordsworth – says it most succinctly:

How exquisitely the individual mind

… to the external world

Is fitted; and how exquisitely too …

The external world is fitted to the mind.

While I am aware that the argument is circular, that doesnt make it wrong.  And, in any case, it  describes beautifully the positive feedback mechanism that underlies Natural Selection.

It follows that, if my first motivating belief is in the power of scientific method, my second conviction is of the literal truth of Evolution, though I do have grave doubts about the omnipotence of Darwin=s mechanism:  after all, most species do not adapt, but go extinct.  The profound reason for this is that however deterministic the relation of environmental demands to available variations, the operative word remains available:  in the end, adaptability depends upon random mutations and the dice-roll of genetic recombination.  It was this fact, the opportunism of change, and the appalling waste represented by almost universal extinction that drove Darwin to – or very near – atheism; and indeed I consider that religious conservatives are correct in regarding evolution as the enemy of faith.  Many scientists – some of my colleagues in Botany and Zoology among them – will tell you that there is no conflict, but I think this is wishful thinking.  You cannot have Darwin and God both, unless you are content with a deity who kick-started the universe and then lost interest in it.  This, clearly, is not what most people of faith hope for, but rather a personal deity, imminent and engaged in the operation of the world.

[Recent attempts to revise American history notwithstanding, the notion of an absentee landlord of the universe was of course the position of our founding fathers; and while I have no reason to doubt that they were an admirable group of committed Deists, ardent Unitarians, gentle Quakers, and polite Anglicans, Deism provided a convenient support to their political agenda of excluding established religion from government.  Yet surely the most vocal believers today are Theists; and it is perfectly understandable that  the separation of church and state should be as repugnant to them as the union of these two institutions was to Jefferson.]

It is certainly not my intention to tell you what to believe – only what I believe, or do not believe, and how it has influenced my teaching.  [When the mathematician and astronomer Laplace proudly presented a copy of his Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon, the Emperor looked it over and remarked how odd it was that he, Laplace, had done such a wonderful job of describing the universe without once mentioning its Creator.  Laplaces reply was that he had no need of that hypothesis.  By this he probably meant only that science and religion should be kept separate – something that is getting to be harder and harder to maintain in these disUnited States – rather than that one must be discarded in favour of the other.  But not everyone can live such a schizophrenic life.  Certainly I cannot.  I suspect that were there a Drake Equation for assessing the likelihood of God (as there is for the existence of extraterrestrials), it would deliver a negative value.]

I see no evidence of design or purpose in living things, and if I did I would be highly suspicious that I was imposing order where there is none.  After all, the fatal flaw in the Intelligent Design argument is precisely the blasphemous presumption that we can impute our own notions of good design to God – a presumption the Greeks called hubris and is the very genesis of tragedy.

As much as I would sometimes like to think differently, my deepest conviction is that there are neither gods nor extraterrestrials in the universe, and we must have the courage to be alone.  But does this mean that we are adrift without a moral compass?  I think not.  In this course we have argued that every aspect of an organism, whether anatomical, physiological, behavioural, or ecological, must be examined with a view to how it might – or might not – facilitate fitness.  Religion itself is surely an adaptation, but if one rejects the metaphysics, an evolutionary ethics is the obvious substitute.  Critics have taken that suggestion to mean that, in the conduct of human affairs, whatever is biologically natural is somehow Aright.@  Yet Biology is not necessarily Destiny.  An essential part of being human means being able to transcend the biological constraints which have shaped us, when it is appropriate to do so.  Most dramatically, I have argued in my conservation lecture that for our own long-term survival, much less that of other creatures, we must vigorously resist the most emblematic of evolutionary impulses, the mindless drive to make endless numbers of copies of our genes.

More positively, and because of our phylogenetic history as social organisms, I further suggest that the evolutionary world view mandates that we must care for each other.  It is unfortunate that I have not had time to discuss behaviour, because if I had it would seem less of a paradox when I say that caring for others means, first of all, fulfilling yourself.  You have a social, if not moral, obligation to be good stewards of your genetic potential, to become “all that you can be” if you’ll forgive me for borrowing the Army’s recruiting catch-phrase [(which is right up there with Guinness is good for you – but, as Martin Luther said in defending his musical compositions, there is no reason why the Devil should have all the good tunes … or advertising slogans)].

At the same time, and while we rightly honour Olympians for extending the boundaries of their exceptional physical potentials, we should be humble as well as responsible stewards:  one’s genetic profile is an accident of birth.  Much mischief has been perpetrated in the name of the supposed superiority of certain combinations of alleles over others, and not only the Bad Guys are guilty of oppression and ethnic cleansing:  it is not widely appreciated, for example, that the Nazis modelled their racial laws on the theories and methods of American eugenicists (including the practice of forced sterilization of the so-called “unfit”).

Rather, pride appropriately resides in what you accomplish despite your genetic limitations.  When I decided, about eight years ago, to become an athlete after a lifetime of scorning organised sports, it was definitely a departure from what I am naturally competent at doing.  Of course, there are some things that you will never become really good at unless you start early in life:  playing a sport is certainly one; mastering a musical instrument, learning a foreign language, or doing mathematics efficiently are others.  But I am prouder of what I’ve accomplished as a sailor than almost anything else I’ve done with my life, precisely because it was so hard.  (And a bonus is that I now understand better why most people are so crazy about playing sports – it is a way of doing something physical together without having to feel guilty about it!)

There is another reason you should never be afraid of trying something new and out of character (Panel 1).  We humans now live an extraordinarily long time, and it is therefore unsurprising that passions which we once thought would last a lifetime diminish, whether those enthusiasms be for a particular kind of music, food, literature, professional activity, or (sad to say, perhaps) a particular person.  Renewal lies in reinvention, as Scrooge McDuck implies in this panel recreating the moment in 1947 when he first met his nephews and started a new life of wonderful adventures in their company (Panel 2).  I look forward to emulating Scrooge.

And finally this:  the Chinese have the marvelous custom that, when a speaker has finished a presentation, he or she applauds the audience, in thanks for their politeness and attention.  And so I end by applauding you, and through you the many generations of biology students who preceded you, in appreciation of your patience and good humour, and in sincere gratitude for allowing me to pursue the vocation of teaching.  How well I have fulfilled that calling is not for me to judge, but it has been an honour, a privilege, and a deep pleasure to serve you as best I can.  I shall miss you greatly, and wish you well.

John Kirsch: UW-Madison Professor of Zoology, Hoofer Sailing Instructor, Friend – April 8, 1941 – April 5, 2007

Genious in small bits

15 11 2007

I, as I may have posted here before, am a huge fan of Post Secret. If you haven’t been there, check it out.

Frank Warren, the creator and curator of the project, spoke in Madison recently, and his talk was very inspiring. His thoughts in starting the project were very simple: 1) have people send in anonymous secrets on postcards and 2) display them to the public. It is an amazing project that has moved millions of people, and it truly is a simple, ingenious idea. When Frank spoke to us in Madison, he said that people often asked him how he came up with such a great idea. His response to us was that there are millions of ideas out there that just take people with a little thought and creativity to start up.

I believe I’ve found one such project. It’s called Face 2 Face, and it’s by artists JR and Marco. It’s better to show than to tell, so here are a couple videos.

FACE 2 FACE trailer by JR and Marco
Uploaded by 28millimetres

Uploaded by JR

Jesus had a kid?

28 02 2007

This is a fascinating piece written by Kevin David Boles of Urban Semiotic.

He references a Time magazine blog article found here.

The stories discuss James Cameron’s latest film “exposing the fact” that Jesus was married, had a child and died… for real, not as a fictional film. The questions that arise are important for the future. Is this really Jesus (Jesua) and his family, both parents and progeny? If not, whose bodies are they? Other good points made in the Time blog:

“Israel’s prominent archeologist [sic] Professor Amos Kloner didn’t associate the crypt with the New Testament Jesus. His father, after all, was a humble carpenter who couldn’t afford a luxury crypt for his family. And all were common Jewish names.”

Then again, this could be a sensationalist response to the Christian fundamentalist right, following in the footsteps of such great documentarians as Michael Moore. I guess I’ll have to watch this thing and make up my mind.

Protected: Fruit and Stuff

17 04 2006

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The War

20 03 2006

So much has been in the news about the war in Iraq since it just began its third fucking year. A lot of things I’ve been seeing and hearing have been making me think more and more that this is fucking awful. As usual, a list:

1. What sparked this thought:
Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

Doonesbury strip from Monday, 3/20/06
The war involves the using of primarily lower class US citizens to fight and die at high rates. I know that several men and women say that it’s the only way they’ll pay for college or support their family. It’s unfortunate that it involves putting your life on the line. If the reason is simply to “serve your country”, that’s bullshit, I’m sorry. I’d never say that to the face a service person, but you’re serving greedy top politicians and special interests.

2. I just saw “V for Vendetta”. That movie is amazing, and though I saw through the plot before the kicker was revealed, I think the messages of the movie held value. There are images of the Holocaust and WWII, American surveillance, secret police (ala the Gustapo), government media control (which is always happening) and more. One of the most powerful messages of the movie is the question of how “right” terrorism is and at what cost we are willing to work for freedom.
SPOILER ALERT——– The main character, “V”, is a one-man resistance force who blows up a symbolic building to send a message. At the end of the movie, he blows up British Parliament as Guy Fawkes attempted to do on November 5, 1605. The question posed is, “What extreme does one need to go to to change the government?” It suggests that violence and “terrorism” of a sort may be necessary for a change. My conflict with this is non-violent resistance can be as powerful as militant, violent uprisings. Mahatma Gandhi and most of the black rights movement showed us that.——–END SPOILER

3. I heard a story on NPR by a journalist who was in Iraq during the first wave of the war (the air raid). She was one of 16 total US journalists there at the time. She interviewed her cab driver and interpreter who protected her during some of the worst shit. The driver spoke about the progress in Iraq. The most interesting statement he made was that he wept when the US forces pulled down the Saddam statues at the Palestine hotel. He felt that it should have been the Iraqi people who rose up against the government and eventually took down the statues. he felt it was a sham to see what he did. He added that no one in Iraq trusts each other, not even brothers and other family. No one knows who is part of the insurgency. Commenting on the police, he said that the forces there are still really bad. He thought that US troops still couldn’t leave because they were the only ones that could prevent civil unrest (and eventually civil war) between militant Sunni and Shiite factions. I’ve seen documentaries showing day-to-day life of soldiers, and I believe that soldiers are needed there to keep order. It may seem to counter my earlier statement to say that I believe that soldiers do good in Iraq, but that’s not the case. The difference is, a soldier should know that it is (some) politicians’ greed and corruption that got us into the mess. At the same time, the media portrays the idea that no good is coming from US occupation in Iraq. I feel like we’ve gone about it the wrong way, and I feel like we need to withdraw mostly, but it seems we’re still needed for many things.

4. Another thought I had after hearing about the destruction of the Shiite Golden Mosque was that this place is similar to the US during the civil war, except that the lines aren’t so clearly drawn. I know that Sunni and Shiite Muslims pray alongside each other and can get along here, but in Iraq, that’s rarely the case. The cabby was Sunni married to a Shiite, and he said it was a strain on the marriage, but that they resolved those issues. From what I know about the situation, Saddam contributed to the hatred by making the religious difference a classist and political issue as well as a religious difference. The bombing of the Golden Mosque makes me feel even more that these people are fucking their own countrymen over. I’m starting to give more and more merit to the inflammatory statement that eventually, they’re going to bomb themselves back to the stone age. When are they going to realize what shit they’re doing to each other? Never? Look at the Palestine/Israel conflict. I mean, damn, the Jews have been persecuted since the dawn of civilization. Who’s to say that areas with militant muslims won’t always be at war?

In digression, what direction is our own country headed in? I feel like here, political polarization is going extreme. There are a lot more right right people and neo-cons, and a lot more democrats are moving to the left to contrast and distance themselves from the right. I think a lot of it comes to just not wanting to concede anything to the Republicans. By the way, kudos to Russ Feingold for calling for a censure of Bush over the wiretapping issue. Boo to Lieberman for defending Bush’s shit agenda.

5. My dad, who usually keeps his political beliefs to himself, said he truly believes Bush is nuts and that the dems aren’t much better. I know that politically, this is a very superficial thing, but it still got to me.

Well, there’s a loaded essay for you. Please, comment and feel free to contradict or add.


30 11 2005

I don’t know why I didn’t buy the new Death Cab album the moment it came out. I’ve been listening to stuff I downloaded a month ago but never heard. It’s amazing. I may be asking for this for x-mas. It’s funny how I get my list in later and later every year because I give less and less of a crap about presents.

The biggest and most important part of Christmas is going home. Even though it should be God, I think a lot more about reconnecting with family and enjoying time with my family. I do think of what Christmas really is about, but it doesn’t seem to take the forefront in my mind.

I was amazed last night to see the BEST light display I’ve ever seen at a concert. I think the fact that it was indoors helped, but the Dave Matthews Band set was amazing, and it had a lot of really great lighting effects. I was also very pleased that Christmas Song was not accompanied by Christmas-y colors and snowflake gels. Well done, light guys.

Crooked Teeth – DCC

It was one hundred degrees, as we sat beneath a willow tree,
Who’s tears didn’t care, they just hung in the air, and refused to fall, to fall.

And I knew I’d made horrible call,
And now the state line felt like the Berlin wall,
And there was no doubt about which side I was on.

Cause I built you a home in my heart,
With rotten wood, it decayed from the start.

Cause you can’t find nothing at all,
If there was nothing there all along.
No you can’t find nothing at all,
If there was nothing there all along.

I braved treacherous streets,
And kids strung out on homemade speed.
And we shared a bed in which I could not sleep,
At all, woo, hoo, woo, hooOoOo.

Cause at night the sun in retreat,
Made the skyline look like crooked teeth,
In the mouth of a man who was devouring, us both.

You’re so cute when you’re slurring your speech,
But they’re closing the bar and they want us to leave.

And you can’t find nothing at all,
If there was nothing there all along.
No you can’t find nothing at all,
If there was nothing there all along.

I’m a war, of head versus heart,
And it’s always this way.
My head is weak, my heart always speaks,
Before I know what it will say.

And you can’t find nothing at all,
If there was nothing there all along.
No you can’t find nothing at all,
If there was nothing there all along…