Friday, November 18, 2005

precious instruments

Visiting friends in Grenoble a few years ago, I asked if I could send email. Oh yes replied Christian, right this way! He opened the door to a room in their small apartment reserved for the computer. The system was covered in a big white sheet. He removed the sheet, powered the computer and monitor on, and we waited while it booted. Once booted he got his daughter to log in. Finally I could open a browser and use email.

When I was done Christian shut the computer down, turned off the monitor, covered the system with the sheet, and closed the door to the room. They went through this procedure every time they used the computer. The idea of leaving the computer on all the time was preposterous to Christian. The computer was a precious instrument.

Recently I started clarinet lessons again. I had taken lessons briefly as a boy, inspired by the playing of Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. It didn't last--I didn't like my teacher Jimmy Mosher who though a great musician was no Larry Fine. Teaching nine-year-olds was beneath him.

I bought a clarinet several years ago in the hopes that one of my kids would pick it up. One was playing alto sax so eh, it could happen! I got the other kid to go to a few lessons. She picked it up quickly since she could read music and seemed to have a knack, but was not interested. She said if you're so interested, why don't you do it.

Once in a while I'd assemble the clarinet and give it a try. I treated it the way Christian treated the computer, and the way my aunts treated their living room. Precious!

Every time I felt like playing I'd take it out of the case, assemble it, play for five minutes, then disassemble it and put it back into the case. Which was too much of a bother to do very often.

When I somehow realized I could just leave it assembled and on its stand, and it only needed to be taken apart to transport and for cleaning, the ridiculousness of the "precious" approach immediately became obvious. What was I thinking? Who knew--I thought that's what you did!

Now when I happen to walk by it's there, beckoning--Neil, spiel es noch amol! Maybe in a few years I can achieve Larry Fine-ness or even, my hands are trembling--Naftule Brandwein. Der Yid in Lynn!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

turtles all the way down

The novice asks the master, "Oh wise one, what keeps the world from falling into the abyss?"

The master replies, "The world is supported on the back of a giant turtle."

"But what supports the giant turtle, master?"
"Another turtle, my child."
"And beneath him?"
"Sorry, it's turtles, all the way down."

Begging the question is a phrase I heard more often than I understood. That's what this is.

Intelligent design similarly relies on an infinite stack of turtles. If a structure is (seemingly) too complex to have evolved by natural selection, it must therefore have been designed by an entity that is in turn too complex to have evolved by natural selection. And who designed this entity?

Sorry, it's intelligent designers, all the way down.

(With thanks to Crawford Washington.)