Cramming for my finals, Part 3. Heaven, if it exists, a poem by Robin Smith Chapman.

Heaven, if it exists,

will be made of plastic, that glowing
sky space of eternity floating above
bright colors of every size from nano-
to peta-chip—a kind of technicolor
beach—and we’ll waft above the sea
holding on to our paragliders of plastic bags—
trying to sight those millennia of gifts
we gave away—wild turtles adrift
in turquoise waters, the forest lemurs,
the vaquita; the Monarch butterflies,
gorillas and orangutans and tigers;
the Chinook salmon; Sumatran elephants,
the rhinos; the rusty-patched bumblebee
and little brown bats on bright posters
plastered on our sky-blue walls—oh,
memory, even if it were eternal,
is small consolation for the loss
of those brief, bright-burning lives—
(not loss, but murder, says my inner critic:
bellies filled with plastic, eardrums
blasted into blood-pools, reefs acidified.
If reincarnation works, we’ll come back
as whales and fish and sea anemones).
Robin Smith Chapman

Cramming always confronts a deadline, and I’ve hit mine. The class reunion starts tomorrow. With that deadline comes an inescapable reckoning: a realization that too much has been left undone, accompanied by regret – at the time misspent, frittered away, opportunities lost. Which brings me to my last author – Robin Smith Chapman. I knew her from Swarthmore as a psychology major, but mostly admired her from afar (in reality, most of my Swarthmore classmates fell into that big admired-at-a-distance category.)

In the following years of reading alumni class notes it belatedly began to dawn on me that Robin was writing a fair amount of poetry.

I idly thought I really should look into that some day…

…and after sixty years, “some day” has arrived.

An aside – obvious in retrospect. Over the past sixty years, the developed world has greatly expanded the opportunities for instant gratification. For example, suppose I procrastinate in getting around to Jed Rakoff’s book. No worries! A few key clicks and it’s on my Kindle within minutes.

Ah, but for artists, of whatever medium, that can be a different matter. That’s why instead of reporting on the whole of what by now has become Robin’s substantial oeuvre, some dozen or more volumes, I’m going to mention only one or two bits and scraps that somehow, against the odds, I was able to uncover on the internet[1].Most of her output is available primarily in hardcopy.

One welcome exception is her poem that I’ve taken the liberty to reproduce in its entirety above. I’m not going to attempt an evaluation or assessment here. For an unwashed physical scientist to try that would only detract from its profound message.  I’m sure that George Becker, chair of Swarthmore’s English Department, who let me escape English Literature 101 with a C (at probable great damage to his self-respect) would agree. But I will say this. During some of my years at NOAA I’d supervised research and policy analysis on oil spills and read papers discussing the pervasive and dangerous impacts of plastics, especially in their micro- and nano- forms, on the environment and on living things, including human beings. But none of that has hit me emotionally like this poem – and at several levels. This is true of other pieces of Robin’s work I’ve been able to access over the past few days. Her ability to juxtapose the truly sublime with the profoundly troubling is – well let’s just say it’s the reason I’m waiting impatiently for the (used) copy of Six True Things and a copy of Images of a Complex World: the Art and Poetry of Chaos that I’ve ordered to make their way to me via snail mail.

Oh, think I forgot to mention that Robin put that Swarthmore degree and further education to good use in  her day job, professor (now emeritus) of Communication sciences and Disorders at the University of Wisconsin. (Drill down through the link and you’ll discover she’s an accomplished painter as well.)

A closing note: here’s a link providing a bit of her story of her childhood in Oak Ridge Tennessee, the daughter, as she says, of a physicist/operations-researcher father who moved there in 1946 to work, post-Manhattan-Project. And this link provides a couple of poems building on her childhood experience there: Early Days, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1947.

That same year, 1946, my father, a mathematics Ph.D. (algebra) from Princeton, moved us from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he’d been on the NCSU faculty, to Sewanee, Tennessee (a mere 150 miles from Oak Ridge down over winding Appalachian roads) where he would teach mathematics at the University of the South for five years. During that period, he remade himself – taught himself some statistics, enough to get a civilian job at the Pentagon from 1951-1952, then returned to Princeton and worked with John Tukey and others in statistics and operations research. In 1955, he applied for an operations-research job at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and successfully interviewed there. However, ORNL had made him pay the expenses of his interview travel. That was a turnoff; so dad decided instead to accept another offer – at the mathematics department of Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh. Seven decades later, I’m realizing there’s a chance our fathers met.

[1] Note added at the very end of this writing. Turns out, there’s actually quite a bit of Robin’s poetry online. It’s just that, instead of being brazenly thrust on web-surfers in gigabyte hunks from a few big sites, it asks to be teased out, in small individual bits, from dozens of separate links. The experience is much like the immersion in nature that Robin captures so beautifully. Stroll through the woods, and at first it doesn’t seem like much is happening. But stay put for a bit –and slowly but surely the woods come alive – revealing themselves to be teeming with critters and activity.

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Cramming for my finals, Part 2. High Tension, FDR’s Battle to Power America, by John Riggs.

“A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people.” – Will Rogers[1]

I absolutely love this book:

High Tension, FDR’s Battle to Power America, by John (“Jack”) Riggs came out in late 2020 or thereabouts. I’d known Jack was at work on this project and happily got my paperback copy soon after. You may remember the country was still in a state of covid lockdown at that time. When the book arrived I eagerly read the first few pages, but the demands of my full-time job (accomplished remotely, thank God, because my wife was in declining health and needed care) found me putting it down. Since then, I’d always known that I would get back to it, but month-after-month has gone by. I even have in the bottom of my email Inbox a gracious update from Jack and an invitation to catch lunch, dated March of 2022 – as yet unanswered. I kept thinking, “I’ll first read the book; then I’ll answer, and then we’ll have lunch” – and yet here we are. Jack, my abject and inadequate apologies.

But through the miracle of cramming, I have finished the book.

And, to repeat, I loved it. I’d have finished it even without the Reunion-imposed deadline. At its heart, the book is a page turner because Jack had lived its content day-in and day-out for decades as a Congressional staffer. He knows its substance at great depth  (much as Jed Rakoff knows his legal discipline, per the previous LOTRW cramming post). But this book, like Jed’s, over-delivers. Jack fully recounts FDR’s battle to power America, but he provides so much more. He looks at a half-century of the pre-FDR background. He reviews the engineering innovation, driven by Edison, Westinghouse, and others. He lays out U.S. policies towards business and their evolution over the period. He weaves throughout the emerging impact of hydroelectric power, the disruptions occasioned by the Great Depression and World War II. Like Jed, Jack peels away the layer of what happened over time to reveal why and how events unfolded as they did. And he proves himself a masterful storyteller, focusing on the people – their strengths and their flaws – and their relationships and engagement with one another.

Does this sound too good to be true? Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a link to a 2020 Hunter College video conversation between Jack and Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior under Bill Clinton. Babbitt takes the first five full minutes to deliver a paean to Jack’s knowledge and authoritative yet captivating writing style, starting out something along the lines of I thought to myself I’d had eight years as Secretary of the Interior working on these problems, to say nothing of my earlier career, and really wondered why I should have to read this book… Then I absorbed the first few pages and literally couldn’t put it down…In my experience, to find a Cabinet-level presidential appointee this effusive about a career civil-servant’s work is virtually unheard-of.

When Babbitt finishes with his praise, he asks Jack, what prompted you to write this book? Jack answers that he’d read Ben Yergin’s book about the history of the oil industry, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power. He then wondered, where’s the counterpart book on electricity? only find there wasn’t one.

Jack adds that his book doesn’t compare with Yergin’s, but an argument can be made that he’s being too modest. Here are two (out of several) additional comparisons that come to mind. The first is Marc Reisner’s classic: Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water. The second is Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. The latter interests me particularly. Tuchman’s purpose in writing her epic book was to provide an analog to the kind of upheaval one might expect to accompany a third World War. In a similar fashion, High Tension gives a feel for the interplay of political-, business-, and technical dynamics now underway in the transition from fossil fuels to solar- and wind power (or the disruption just beginning through the overlay of artificial intelligence onto virtually every human activity). (Projects for Jack to contemplate in retirement!)

In closing, I’d note that one of the many attractions of Jack’s book is that it’s peppered throughout with on-point insights from Will Rogers. In the search for something of Rogers’ material to add, I came across the quote opening this post. It captures the essence of my experience at Swarthmore, where I got to learn both ways.

[1] In another quote, Will Rogers describes a third way of learning, featuring a connection to the theme of Jack’s book, but I didn’t feel comfortable posting it in this blog.

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Remedial reading: Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free, by Jed Rakoff.

“But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.” – Jethro’s advice to Moses (Exodus 18: 21-22, NIV)

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” – Jesus, in His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:25, NIV)

Come the end of this week I should be in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, attending my 60th college class reunion. As the date draws near, the memories have been coming back, first in a trickle – then in flood – and now I’m losing sleep. I’d registered casually a month or two back, but it’s belatedly dawning on me that this is a big deal. In part that’s because it’s only the second time in six decades I’ve returned to campus to meet with my classmates; the first (and last) was twenty years ago, and that visit was greatly truncated, due to some job conflicts. In part it’s because I’ve been following an online chat of my classmates and am being reminded once again that I was possibly (yeah, probably) accepted by Swarthmore merely to add a smidgen of geographical diversity. In the 1960’s a kid from Pittsburgh was considered an outlier in a group comprising mostly more-talented, better-educated students from New York City and Philadelphia.

I’d been naïve enough when I arrived from a high school fifty percent bigger than the college to wonder if I might not only be one of the brightest but also just possibly one of the most athletic. The correct answer, it turned out, was evident even before the end of freshman orientation: an emphatic none of the above. For four years I was by turns dazzled and inspired and, yes, occasionally depressed by the brilliance and insights of the students and the faculty of the place, as well as their (usually multiple) athletic and artistic gifts.

So, I’ve been channeling my earlier college-age self the past few days, essentially cramming for my finals.

Subscribers to this blog are familiar with my occasional posts under the heading of remedial reading – a look at books (mostly) that I’ve finally gotten around to reading, only to discover I should have picked them up much earlier.

This post and the next two explore remedial reading with a special twist. They’re focused on works by thoughtful, accomplished classmates – folks who’ll be at the reunion. I don’t want to face them without having read some of their stuff. The three classmates in question have written far more than what I’m reporting on here – and my other classmates have published and written extensively as well. So my apologies to all, in every direction, in advance. But this is what cramming is. Those sins of indolence over the past sixty years have caught up with me. I don’t have time to read more than just a few scraps of what’s out there.

Here goes.

Start with the Honorable Jed Saul Rakoff, a senior United States district judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. But he’s not just any federal district judge, as you’ll see if you check out the link to the Wikipedia article and other sources. In addition to writing some 1800 opinions in his day job (he’s only been a judge since 1995 so that averages out to 60 per year), he’s written more than 150 published articles (about 2-3/year), given 700 speeches (something like one a month), and authored and co-authored a few books (say, one per decadal-class-reunion).

And let’s look at his 2021 book Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free. In case you are harboring any lingering doubts about the book’s contents or where the author is coming from, it’s subtitled And Other Paradoxes of Our Broken Legal System. Simply to read the title evokes a quiver of anticipation. This is what you’re seeing in the headlines every day – including – perhaps especially – this very week. You want what you’re seeing explained. The same applies to the chapter headings. A sample: the scourge of mass incarceration (looking not just at the nation’s extraordinarily high number of jailed, but also the racial inequities reflected in those statistics); why the innocent plead guilty; why high-level executives are exempt from prosecution; the Supreme Court’s undue subservience to the executive branch, etc. Interspersed are chapters dealing with the shortcomings of eyewitness testimony and forensic science, and the potential of the latter; the war on terrorism’s war on law, etc.

It’s all in here! Each heading brings both a sense of déjà vu and an appetite to learn more, drawing the reader in. Read the book through and you’ll realize Jed has relatively painlessly helped you organize all the random bits about justice and the legal system you’ve experienced and been accumulating in your brain over a lifetime into a coherent whole. What’s more, he’s given you greater insight into why things are the way they are – and laid out options for improvement going forward. These include stripping prosecutors of some of the unchecked opportunity for intimidation they enjoy in the early hours of the legal process, assigning judges a greater role in any plea bargaining, giving judges more latitude in their sentencing, prosecuting corporate executives for criminal behavior versus levying fines on the corporations they lead, and much, much more.

Bottom line? You really want to read this book – and whenever the opportunity presents, use what you’ve learned to ratchet the legal system a bit closer to one America can view with pride. To further whet your appetite, you might view one of the several video interviews on line. Here’s a sample, from C-SPAN.

Friday at 3:30 Jed Rakoff will be moderating a panel with the title Distrust of Science in America and What Can Be Done About It. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.


One closing note: Unsurprisingly, a few of the book’s recommendations call for additional investment in the legal system infrastructure – more courts, more judges, and more trial by jury, and the like[1].

Which is where the two Biblical passages come in – one from the Pentateuch and the other from the New Testament. In the first, Moses, the lawgiver, found himself overwhelmed with the daily task of settling disputes arising among the vast migrant people under his charge. His father-in-law, a Midianite, suggests a judicial infrastructure. Twelve or so centuries later, Jesus, surveying the court system that resulted, reminds his hearers, in effect – you really don’t want to become entangled in the legal system. Whatever it takes, you and your adversary should muster the forgiveness, own up to any accountability, and rally the will to compromise that will enable you to resolve your differences on your own. True then. True today.

[1]This latter reality reminds me of another book, one I read several years ago, entitled The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, by Richard and Daniel Susskind, a father-son team. They note, in brief, that not only lawyers, but also doctors, financial advisors, educators, journalists, and many other professionals (even pastors and rabbis) are too few in number and too costly to meet the needs of society. They go on to discuss the impact technology in general and AI in particular might have on the professions broadly. Another must-read.

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Global Change Research for a More Secure World

Earlier this month, Benjamin L. Preston, Hila Levy, Heather Tallis, Rod Schoonover and Jane Lubchenco published an opinion piece in Eos Buzz by this title. In it, they argue that orienting global change science so that it informs national security issues will help us develop interventions that promote social stability and ecological well-being.

They identify five dimensions to this task, making a compelling case for each:

  • Enhance Earth monitoring systems
  • Develop holistic knowledge systems
  • Improve reporting of nature-security links
  • Enhance strategic foresight capacity
  • Increase science coproduction and translation.

Their fuller text is compelling and merits a reading in its entirety. However, these bullet points are on their face salient and to some degree self-explanatory. Better observations – greater resolution, higher diagnostic power, etc. – are almost always a needed starting point for better security analysis. And since national security rises or falls depending on the interplay of disparate factors, disciplinary silos can’t be tolerated. But holistic insights per se are not enough. To be beneficial, they can’t remain the province of a handful of experts. Instead, the national security stakes have to be more widely shared. Forecast uncertainties often paralyze action; therefore forecast improvement will always remain a goal. And if the forecasts are to have any chance of being actionable, they must be co-produced by the decisionmakers.

The aggregated credentials and past and present affiliations that Preston et al. bring to the table lend credence and legitimacy to their recommendations. The initiatives they propose need doing – and with some urgency. It’s reassuring to know that those working this portfolio at the national level have developed this roadmap and are moving in this direction.

But here’s the thing. These thrusts will better equip our national security community (a small handful of Americans) to detect emerging threats early and identify a range of coping strategies at a high level. But by themselves they will not make our nation overall more secure. At best the United States might find itself on a treadmill, struggling to keep pace with sequential threats of likely growing complexity and import. What’s needed is a nation more resilient from the ground up.

That is where the rest of us come in – the vast majority of Americans outside the formal national security establishment. Oversimplifying (and exaggerating) greatly, a nation’s security depends on its people’s will to fight and die for it. Despotic leaders attempt to achieve this through a climate of fear: pervasive surveillance; (conditional) rewards for loyalty; brutal repression of even the slightest resistance; spinning bits of the truth and strewing heaps of propaganda to mold thought.

Democracies attempt a seemingly more fragile path to the same end. They dare to hope that fairness and truth; generous amounts of transparency and openness; hearty dialog, even countenancing open disagreement; and the ultimate (occasionally endless, bordering-on-energy-sucking) search for compromise will prove addictive – and lead to national unity and allegiance. Almost seems a contradiction in terms, but democratic nations can find that kind of freedom priceless and the process of building unity exhilarating instead of exhausting. A nation placing big bets on such freedom and matching that with sustained investments in its young people (through K-12 public education that emphasizes critical thinking and civic and ethical responsibility) will find over time that national security becomes a more manageable concern.

Finally, we must remain mindful to the reality that true national security can’t be achieved in isolation by any single country, no matter how powerful. All nations must give balanced attention and priority to the security needs and interests of others. “America-first” approaches, whether overt or tacit, are likely to prove counterproductive. The path to national security for one can be achieved only as it grows more accessible to all.

A closing reflection for this Memorial Day. Those of us who are living – those here in the United States, and the eight billion people worldwide – owe it to those who’ve fought and died for freedom over centuries – to be vigorous, courageous, and untiring in our efforts toward world security.

E pluribus unum, but on a worldwide scale.

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Climate change, faith… and the Golden Rule.

Generally speaking, our successive thoughts are connected, rather than disjoint; hence, metaphors such as “train of thought” and “stream of consciousness.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that while writing the previous LOTRW post, which dipped a toe into the sea of web material on AI and faith, my wandering mind turned to the similar (somewhat broader) question: how do people of faith currently see the problem of climate change? Is it time to take another look?

Again, to ask Google that question is to find oceans of material to swim in. But “nearshore,” as it were, I came across this: How Religion Intersects With Americans’ Views on the Environment, subtitled Responsibility for the Earth is part of many U.S. Christians’ beliefs, but so is skepticism about climate change.


Dated November 17, 2022, admittedly a while ago in internet years, the finding comes from the Pew Research Center. The results of their polling:

Most U.S. adults – including a solid majority of Christians and large numbers of people who identify with other religious traditions – consider the Earth sacred and believe God gave humans a duty to care for it, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Okay so far…

But the survey also finds that highly religious Americans (those who say they pray each day, regularly attend religious services and consider religion very important in their lives) are far less likely than other U.S. adults to express concern about warming temperatures around the globe.

“Far less likely…to express concern?” Really? That seems puzzling on its face. The report goes on to provide a fuller picture:

…On average, people who are less religious tend to be more concerned about the consequences of global warming. For example, religiously unaffiliated adults – those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” – are much more likely to say climate change is an extremely or very serious problem (70%) than are religiously affiliated Americans as a whole (52%)…

The authors provide some further statistics by way of reinforcing this assertion and providing interpretation:

…a third of all evangelical Protestants say climate change is not a serious problem because there are much bigger problems in the world (34%). Nearly as many say it’s not a problem because God is in control of the climate (29%). Both of these explanations are more common than the belief that climate change is not happening, which 15% of all evangelicals say is their position…

…The potential impact of government regulations is another factor that may contribute to religious Americans’ views on climate change. Compared with religious “nones” (28%), more Christians (44%) – and especially evangelical Protestants (56%) – say that in the next 30 years it is extremely or very likely that the U.S. will overreact to global climate change by creating many unnecessary environmental regulations. And religiously affiliated adults also are more likely than the unaffiliated to anticipate a gradual loss of individual freedoms in the coming decades because of environmental regulations.

There are similar patterns on a question about the impact that environmental regulations could have on the economy. About half of Americans who affiliate with a religion say that stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy. Evangelical Protestants are especially likely to hold this view; indeed, they are the only major U.S. religious group in which a majority take this position (66%). At the opposite end of the spectrum, two-thirds of religious “nones” say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost (68%).

All these opinions are strongly tied to political partisanship, which emerges as a crucial factor in explaining views toward the environment and climate change

 As a Christian and as an atmospheric scientist I view all this with mixed emotions[1], but one takeaway that resonates is the idea that there are much bigger problems in the world.

Some might be hesitant about the idea of “bigger” here, but suppose we replace this with an alternate wording: there are many other problems in the world. Then there would probably be agreement among atheists and religious alike. The Pew Research Center doesn’t give a list. But any inventory might include (but certainly not be limited to): the uneven recovery of the world economy, public education, etc. following the global pandemic; threats to democracy; wars in Gaza, the Ukraine, and elsewhere; terrorism; immigration; US-China tensions; and vulnerability to natural hazards.

Upon reflection, perhaps atheists and religious alike would also agree that these seemingly diverse problems actually have a common moral or ethical root – unfairness, self-interest, fear, anger, complacency on the part of wrongdoers, desire for revenge versus forgiveness on the part of those wronged, etc., etc. It therefore makes little sense to attempt to resolve any individual problem by, say, gaining a momentary political advantage and taking the opportunity to ramrod problem-specific policy solutions through. Such approaches just build up the unfairness and resulting distrust and disunity that are the underlying problem. In short, most of the world’s big problems are ethical or moral or spiritual matters.

Enter the Golden Rule. Atheists and the religious alike might agree that if the Golden RuleTreat others as you would like others to treat you were more widely adhered-to, rather than merely quoted, many if not all of these global problems would become more tractable.

On the face of it, following the Golden Rule itself might appear to be the most problematic challenge of all. After all, it’s been with us in different languages and cultures for thousands of years. On a daily basis, it’s possible to see many instances from the global to the individual level where it is observed in the breach. But the opposite might be closer to the truth. Fact is, the Golden Rule is observed to a profoundly astonishing degree. A survey from Deseret News and The Marist Poll dating back to this same 2022 time period found that 92% of U.S. adults say the call to “do unto others as they would do unto you” is a “very necessary” or “necessary” part of their personal lives. That poll found very little difference between the irreligious (87%) and the rest of the population and also found that 96% of young adults 18-29 “supported the concept.”

Look back over your day. Suppose, in each circumstance (of the hundreds, perhaps thousands in your day) – each transaction, each conversation, each e-mail, each instance in your commute or at home – you’d deliberately and intentionally and consistently made an effort to treat others in a way counter to how you’d like to be treated. Suppose nations did the same – suppose they each adopted a overt stance, for example, of “(My Nation) first.” The result would be utter, complete chaos. It would also be short- lived – not just because of the destruction, but because each of us would find the effort of being so mean-spirited too exhausting and too stressful. We wouldn’t make it through the first half-hour. Subjectively, it’s not hard to imagine that fully incorporating the very smallest, most numerous transactions of our daily lives, the Golden Rule is being observed nearly to perfection (99%? More?) by eight billion people. The handful of exceptions are so striking (and considered so threatening to all of us) that they comprise each day’s headline news.

So, however we might want to promote world sweetness and light – whether with respect to climate change, or poverty, or polarization, or any single, specific issue  – the quickest, cheapest, most natural, least stressful way forward is to cling a little more tightly to the Golden Rule as we go forward. If the freedom we wanted most were not freedom of speech per se, or the right to bear arms, but the freedom to be responsible, we’d find most every other aspiration falling into our hands.

Just saying.

[1] (Full disclosure) I would define Christian as a “follower of Christ, or disciple of Christ” versus a member of a particular group or denomination. The “mixed emotions” include my continuing aversion to “Christian” embrace of political partisanship of any stripe. This seems to me to be anthetical to everything Jesus was and is and represents.

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Remedial reading: AI and faith.

My dad, the statistician, used to lecture my brother and me on the importance of population size. He would say “in a town of 800 people, serious crime is a rare thing, almost unheard of. But in a population of 800,000, serious crime is commonplace, daily, inevitable.”

Today we’re going to talk in that same spirit about eight billion people – the world’s population. That’s a very big number. To see this, consider a subject or an issue that only one person in a million might explore.

That means some 8,000 people are thinking about it, obsessing about it, studying/writing about it, taking a suite of actions.

Eight thousand. Wow. Look at this in dollar terms. Suppose that they’re each being paid an average of $60,000 annually to work on it; that means society as a whole is plunking down almost 0.5 billion dollars on the topic each year. Of course “huge” number of dollars is the merest hiccup compared with the world’s $85 trillion GDP.

This background partially explains today’s discovery. I was idly wondering how opinions and concerns, hopes and fears about artificial intelligence might break depending on a person’s faith or spirituality. I googled something to along the lines of “faith and artificial intelligence.” I thought (naively; my dad notwithstanding; I never seem to learn!) that I wouldn’t find much. Within half a second, was confronted with myriad posts, articles, commentaries on the subject, the tip of an iceberg of 200 million (!) “results.” (A lot of these, of course, are duplicates, but 200 million?)[1] Everything is in there, ranging from “Can religion and AI work together?” to “Is AI a threat to Christianity,” to “Is AI a new religion,” to “Use AI responsibly and ethically.” And that’s before getting to the cringeworthy titles like “AI will be the political left’s ‘single greatest weapon’ against religious faith and truth,” to “I convinced ChatGPT that God exists.”

The noise is deafening. But among the myriad links, I came across this one: “Thinking about God increases acceptance of artificial intelligence in decision-making.”


The language of the title is a bit tame for internetspeak, suggesting something scholarly – evidence based. Sure enough, the source was Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper was published August 7 of last year; the authors are Mustafa Karatas (Nazarbayev University, Graduate School of Business, Astana, Kazakhstan) and Keisha M. Cutright (Duke University, Fuqua School of Business).

There’s a case to be made for reading the article in its entirety. ICYMI (like me, along with nearly eight billion others, to emphasize my earlier point), here are a few excerpts, to give the flavor and perhaps whet your appetite for a deeper dive.

The authors first argue the topic’s significance:

As AI recommendations become increasingly prevalent and the world grapples with its benefits and costs, it is important to understand the factors that shape whether people accept or reject AI-based recommendations. We focus on one factor that is prevalent across nearly every society: religion. Research has not yet systematically examined how religion affects decision-making in light of emerging AI technologies, which inherently raise questions on the role and value of humans. In introducing this discussion, we find that God salience heightens AI acceptance.

 The abstract that follows contains material like this:

Thinking about God promotes greater acceptance of Artificial intelligence (AI)-based recommendations. Eight preregistered experiments (n = 2,462) reveal that when God is salient, people are more willing to consider AI-based recommendations than when God is not salient. Studies 1 and 2a to 2d demonstrate across a wide variety of contexts, from choosing entertainment and food to mutual funds and dental procedures, that God salience reduces reliance on human recommenders and heightens willingness to consider AI recommendations. Studies 3 and 4 demonstrate that the reduced reliance on humans is driven by a heightened feeling of smallness when God is salient, followed by a recognition of human fallibility. Study 5 addresses the similarity in mysteriousness between God and AI as an alternative, but unsupported, explanation. Finally, study 6 (n = 53,563) corroborates the experimental results with data from 21 countries on the usage of robo-advisors in financial decision-making

Despite AI’s ability to outperform humans in many contexts, people often exhibit a biased preference for human recommendations, a phenomenon known as algorithm aversion…

… Having permeated the existence of nearly every known society, religion has been a persistent and powerful influence in people’s lives throughout history and continues to shape the lives of billions of people around the world…

… it affects decision-making in important ways, particularly in social and moral domains…

Importantly, a relatively nascent body of research shows that religion also influences how humans behave and make decisions in more mundane aspects of everyday life. For instance, there is growing evidence that religious reminders lower interest in self-improvement products (30), lessen reliance on brand name products (31), and decrease impulse grocery spending (32). These findings suggest that the impact of religion on human behavior is broad and that more research is needed to understand how religion influences decision-making, especially in light of massive advances in technology that have become integral to modern decision-contexts. The question of how religion affects decision-making in the face of AI is particularly interesting when considering that such technologies evoke fundamental questions about the value and role of humans (33); religion has faced such questions since its beginnings (3435).

To begin addressing the intersection of religion and AI, we investigate how the salience of God affects people’s propensity to rely on AI. We theorize that God salience—the extent to which individuals are actively thinking about God—is one important factor that may attenuate AI aversion. In broaching a relationship between religion and AI, we focus specifically on the salience of God for two main reasons. First, the centrality of God(s) or other supernatural deities is what is common across all large-scale religions (2036), as opposed to any specific set of beliefs or practices. Indeed, among all words that relate to religion, “God” is the most commonly used in the English language (37). Second, people are frequently exposed to reminders of God in their daily lives, even if they are not religious, suggesting that an effect of mere God salience may be relevant to more of the world’s population than a narrower focus on specific religious beliefs or activities.

We predict that God salience will dampen AI aversion in decision-making. That is, individuals will be less reliant on humans and more open to recommendations from AI systems when God is salient. This is because when God is salient, people feel smaller and are thus more likely to recognize themselves, and mankind more generally, as limited and fallible.

And that is what the authors find. Here’s an excerpt from their concluding discussion:

AI is now a ubiquitous part of everyday life for much of the world—perhaps even akin to the pervasiveness of God. Given the diminished role of humans when viewed in relation to God and within AI operations, might there be a relationship between how thoughts of God affect people’s reactions to AI? Across several studies, our research demonstrates that thinking about God leads people to be more willing to accept recommendations from AI systems than they otherwise would. The results hold across a variety of recommendation contexts (financial, health, entertainment decisions), religious beliefs, and research methodologies (field and lab experiments, global survey). Thoughts of God lead individuals to feel smaller, rendering them more likely to recognize the fallibility of humans. They therefore find it less essential to rely on humans when making decisions and are more accepting of AI-based recommendations.

Importantly, these results extend prior research on the rol e of religion in decision-making. Prior research has largely focused on how religion affects social and moral decision-making (5455). The present findings suggest that religion has important implications for a wide swath of decisions, particularly as it relates to how decisions are made in the face of new technologies that mimic the traditional role of humans. [Emphasis added.] By drawing a connection between how people view humans in relation to God (i.e., as smaller and flawed) and the decreased role that humans embody in AI, our work has broad implications for understanding the acceptance of AI as a decision-making tool. We also acknowledge the counterintuitiveness of the findings at first glance. Based on popular assumptions, one might assume that God salience leads to greater conservatism, less openness to new experiences, and decreased risk-taking, suggesting that people might be less open to the novel technology that drives AI when God is salient. However, empirical evidence provides a more complex picture. For example, prior research suggests that God salience may not necessarily lead to greater conservatism. While religious identification is positively associated with conservatism, spiritual identification is negatively associated with conservatism (56). Moreover, research suggests that there is no conclusive evidence that thoughts of God lead people to be more close-minded (57). Finally, God salience often leads to greater risk-taking, as long as one’s morals are not implicated (5455).

(Note that the authors are careful to speak in terms of God salience and spiritual identification in contrast to religion.)

Food for thought! Worth a more thorough, complete read – and some further reflection.

[1]In case you’re interested, my narrower search of Hindu faith and AI yielded a mere 13 million results.  

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Problem formulation techniques applied to climate change.

The Blue Marble

Happy Earth Day 2024.

Ask people worldwide “is climate change a problem?” and the answer is usually a clear “yes.”  But ask a follow-up, “what is the real nature of that problem?” and the picture is murkier. Answers might range from “we’re burning too much fossil fuel,” to “there are simply too many people,” to “global warming is destroying crops,” to “rainfall patterns are shifting – look at the record floods in the UAE and drought and wildfire in Hawaii,” to “we’re too consumer-oriented,” to “it’s the mis-directed policies of those rascals in that other political party.” The causes identified and the villains vilified would vary from country to country, from demographic to demographic – and from person to person. Eight billion people see the problem eight billion different ways – not just with respect to its seriousness, but with respect to its inherent features and its origins.

Whew! The good news is that the population includes professionals who make their living in the study and practice of (big-picture) problem formulation in general.

The previous LOTRW post looked at the thoughts of one such expert, Oguz Acar, on the particular challenge of harnessing artificial intelligence to problem solving.  Along the way, he observed that  “…to identify, analyze, and delineate problems… necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the problem domain and ability to distill real-world issues.”

Mr. Acar went on to identify four key elements to the process. His description of these is best read verbatim, but when condensed a bit, as, they boil down to something like:

Problem diagnosisidentifying the core problem to be solved. Typically, this involves looking deeper than the mere symptoms to discern the underlying problems.

Deconstructionbreaking down complex problems into simpler subproblems.

Reframingchanging the perspective from which the problem is viewed.

Constraint designbounding the problem.

Hmm. Is analysis of this type being applied to the challenge of climate change? What fruit does it yield?

Start with the problem diagnosis. Eunice Foote got the ball rolling. In the mid-nineteenth century she concluded that water vapor and CO2 play a role in heating the atmosphere. Tyndall, Arrhenius, and others who followed refined the picture. Decades of measurement since document growth trends in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Models of increasing diagnostic power predict the atmospheric temperature changes likely to result over the coming century or two based on different scenarios for future fossil-fuel use, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, etc. Those models also reveal the changes in the hydrologic cycle likely to accompany the temperature changes. Other models reveal accompanying sea level rise and changes in ocean acidification. Research in all these areas and more is ongoing, and the findings documented every four years in voluminous  United Nations IPCC climate change assessments.

The problem has also been reframed. It is today often seen as one wedge of global change – reflecting corresponding declines in natural habitat, biomass and biodiversity, and environmental quality, for example.

In past decades the problem has also been reframed more radically – in terms of human choice. In such a social-science perspective the underlying problems look quite different. Here is an example of ten recommendations for policymakers:

1. View the issue of climate change holistically, not just as the problem of emissions reductions.

2. Recognize that, for climate policymaking, institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits.

3. Prepare for the likelihood that social, economic, and technological change will be more rapid and have greater direct impacts on human populations than climate change.

4. Recognize the limits of rational planning.

5. Employ the full range of analytical perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and the humanities in climate change policymaking.

6. Design policy instruments for real world conditions rather than try to make the world conform to a particular policy model.

7. Incorporate climate change into other more immediate issues, such as employment, defense, economic development, and public health.

8. Take a regional and local approach to climate policymaking and implementation.

9. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts will be largest.

10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making.

The authors contributing to this framing recognized that the social challenges here belong to a class of so-called wicked problems. And that in turn has prompted others to see the deeper problems underlying climate change as not merely societal, but stemming from beliefs, values and attitudes, even bordering on the spiritual.

Now we’re getting warm.

More about this in a moment, but let’s first turn our attention to the two remaining elements of problem formulation. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the vast scale, the stupefying complexity and multi-faceted nature of climate change finds it matched by countless deconstructions and constraint designs (these two go hand in hand). Early on, the physical problem was split into mitigation (reduction of fossil fuel use and transition to renewable forms of energy) and adaptation (building resilience to the coming changes in the hydrologic cycle, patterns and severity of extremes of heat and cold, flood, and drought that are now inevitable as the result of the greenhouse gas buildup to date). The natural and social framings of the problem are spawning as many deconstructions as there are national, regional, and local political and demographic boundaries worldwide. Deconstructions have also emerged along lines of individual professional and academic disciplines, or to reflect contributions needed from myriad communities of practice.

This gives the appearance of chaos. Pessimists might accurately note that there are overlaps, gaps, and resulting inefficiencies in all this that we can ill afford in terms of the overall cost and the slow rate of progress relative to the urgency of the problem. But such multiple, trial-and-error approaches are far more rapidly distinguishing profitable paths forward from dead ends than any kind of monolithic, top-down approach ever would. Think about it. Climate change is not slow-onset; it’s rapid onset compared with the time required for eight billion people to agree on what we should do. This multiplicity of efforts also has the merit of transforming the problem from one to be solved by a small minority of the population, surrounded by eight billion critics, to a problem being attacked by eight billion participants. We all have skin in the game; it turns out that we all have talents and skills and perspectives to offer as well. Earth is no place for spectators.

Pessimists might also note that whatever the problem reframing, the cost is stupefying. And we’re failing to pay the bill. According to a recent New York Times article:

Experts estimate that at least $1 trillion a year is needed to help developing countries adapt to hotter temperatures and rising seas, build out clean energy projects and cope with climate disasters.

Fact is, that sum pales beside the $100 trillion thought to be needed for food, water, and energy infrastructure investment and renovation over the next two decades. But this mountain of money is money we’re paying ourselves. Bottom line? All of us, in one way or another, intentionally or unconsciously, are formulating the climate change/global change problem – diagnosing it, deconstructing it, reframing it, constraining it. And even as we continually hone all that, we’re moving from problem definition into action. We’re putting people to work, locally, everywhere, re-greening our planet – and maybe correcting some long-standing inequities, building a more unified, peaceful global society – in the process.

So happy Earth Day! This is how it feels when things are going well.

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AI prompting? Not to worry. The horse is learning to whisper to us.

the horseless carriage: an awkward stage in the horse-technology relationship

As discussed in the previous LOTRW post, university computer science curricula nationwide are offering courses in AI-prompting – a new discipline, mixing the science and art required to harness the full power of artificial intelligence. A new subject for human beings to master? The prospect is daunting, in part because of the complexity of AI and the diversity of applications for it – and in part because the AI-landscape itself is mutating rapidly. It’s hard to keep up.

Take solace from a Harvard Business Review article of 2023 entitled AI Prompt Engineering Isn’t the Future. The author, Oguz A. Acar, points out that AI – the disease – will itself provide the cure. It is rapidly developing the capacity to assist in this professional niche and may in time take over the whole of it. To extend the metaphor of the earlier post, the horse will be opening a special whispering channel for us – perhaps even softly neighing sweet nothings into our ears.

But Mr. Acar doesn’t really let us off the hook entirely. He goes on replace that challenge with a different but closely related one:

So, what is a more enduring and adaptable skill that will keep enabling us to harness the potential of generative AI? It is problem formulation — the ability to identify, analyze, and delineate problems.

Problem formulation and prompt engineering differ in their focus, core tasks, and underlying abilities. Prompt engineering focuses on crafting the optimal textual input by selecting the appropriate words, phrases, sentence structures, and punctuation. In contrast, problem formulation emphasizes defining the problem by delineating its focus, scope, and boundaries. Prompt engineering requires a firm grasp of a specific AI tool and linguistic proficiency while problem formulation necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the problem domain and ability to distill real-world issues. The fact is, without a well-formulated problem, even the most sophisticated prompts will fall short. However, once a problem is clearly defined, the linguistics nuances of a prompt become tangential to the solution.

Unfortunately, problem formulation is a widely overlooked and underdeveloped skill for most of us. One reason is the disproportionate emphasis given to problem-solving at the expense of formulation. This imbalance is perhaps best illustrated by the prevalent yet misguided management adage, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” It is therefore not surprising to see a recent survey revealing that 85% of C-suite executives consider their organizations bad at diagnosing problems.

It’s hard to read this without wanting to get better at problem formulation. Happily, Mr. Acar has identified four key elements to the process, along these lines:

Problem diagnosis – identifying the core problem to be solved. Typically, this involves looking deeper than the mere symptoms to discern the underlying problems.

Deconstruction – breaking down complex problems into simpler subproblems.

Reframing – changing the perspective from which the problem is viewed.

Constraint design – bounding the problem.

This last one is a bit more complicated. He puts it this way:

Problem constraint design focuses on delineating the boundaries of a problem by defining input, process, and output restrictions of the solution search. You can use constraints to direct AI in generating solutions valuable for the task at hand. When the task is primarily productivity-oriented, employing specific and strict constraints to outline the context, boundaries, and outcome criteria is often more appropriate. In contrast, for creativity-oriented tasks, experimenting with imposing, modifying, and removing constraints allows exploring a wider solution space and discovering novel perspectives.

Mr. Acar sums up on this note:

Although prompt engineering may hold the spotlight in the short term, its lack of sustainability, versatility, and transferability limits its long-term relevance. Overemphasizing the crafting of the perfect combination of words can even be counterproductive, as it may detract from the exploration of the problem itself and diminish one’s sense of control over the creative process. Instead, mastering problem formulation could be the key to navigating the uncertain future alongside sophisticated AI systems. It might prove to be as pivotal as learning programming languages was during the early days of computing.

In other words, to someone in the business and financial world, harnessing the full power of AI for human benefit looks like a problem (as well as a wonderful curriculum development opportunity) – but for B-schools everywhere as opposed to computer sciences or data sciences departments. Somehow, to an outsider, it seems that the future will look more like “both-and” than “either-or.” Expect the courses in prompting to stick around, as well as the courses in problem formulation. The need for and offerings of university education will continue to balloon…

Did you catch Mr. Acar’s earlier phrase: problem formulation necessitates…[an] ability to distill real-world issues? The next LOTRW post looks at how this is playing out with respect to climate change.

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The future belongs to the AI-whisperers – it’s time to be disciplined about your “prompting”!

Animal whisperers are said to:

practice the art of telepathic animal communication. They also use other intuitive gifts to find out what is really going on with an animal at very deep energetic levels, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

This language and the concept behind it are a bit over the top, but you get the idea. The notion has been around for a long time. Think Francis of Assisi, and that’s a mere blink of an eye compared with the domestication of animals, which goes back some 20,000 years.

Some Americans of a certain age got their introduction to the term much more recently and directly – from the 1998 film the Horse Whisperer – portraying a guy with a remarkable understanding of horses. (Robert Redford starred; he was then at the peak of his powers and was really whispering throughout the film to a different species and a specific demographic.)

All this came rushing back to mind a week ago when I sat in on a talk on artificial intelligence. The speaker provided an engaging overview; the audience learned a lot. But for me the takeaway was one small piece:

Prompting is a thing:

In artificial intelligence (AI), prompting is the process of communicating with an AI system by providing specific instructions or queries to achieve a desired outcome. Prompts are the interface between human intent and machine output. For example, in Microsoft 365 Copilot, AI prompting involves communicating with the AI model to generate code, content, or responses based on user input.


More flashback. Back in those same 1990’s I was talking with a USGS friend about search engines. I mentioned what I was using then, Ask Jeeves (now After a brief, polite silence, my friend gently said: “well my (ten-year-old!) son prefers this search engine called Google.”

Gave it a try – and of course never looked back.

If you started using Google about that time, or earlier, you remember that it (and other search engines) were great for addressing a certain range of questions and problems, but for others, search still required a trip to the library, burrowing into printed word, or consultation with experts. But about every six months, it was necessary to recalibrate, because the material Google had to work with was rapidly growing. Two or three decades later, for many of us, the tables are turned. If we can’t find what we need online, looking into it further isn’t worth the bother; the opportunity cost is simply too great.

Your decades of Google use also taught you something else. You became much more efficient in your queries. You learned what was essential to a good query, and what niceties and frills (such as correct spelling) could be ignored. It’s not just Google and the world’s data bases that have changed. You changed. You learned to whisper to Google.

Back to the present day and artificial intelligence. AI is a higher life form. If Google is a gerbil, AI is that horse.

If you have played around with generative AI you already know that asking the right questions in the right way is everything. And it’s tough. It’s the Google-search problem on steroids. The AI world recognizes this. They know that the productivity boosts that AI can offer improve dramatically as your prompts become more adroit. They also know that if each of us figures out what works totally on our own the process will be too slow.

Online you can find tips. The earlier link provides one such set:

  • Be clear: Use plain but clear language.
  • Provide context: Provide specifics about who your audience is and what sort of tone you’d like to set.
  • Avoid vagueness: Being too vague or broad can lead to generic or irrelevant responses.
  • Avoid over-specification: Excessively detailed prompts can confuse the model or limit its creative scope.
  • Avoid literal interpretation: AI often interprets prompts literally, so figurative language can lead to unexpected results

Hmm. Sounds like rules for talking to another person. And such a single simple list doesn’t cut it. These very general suggestions translate into specifics that are different depending on the use of AI (much as they do depending on whether you’re talking to your life partner, or a work colleague, or a stranger). Accordingly, prompt engineering, or prompting has become a key productivity factor in the AI world:

Prompt engineering is the process of writing natural language text that guides generative AI (artificial intelligence) models to produce desired outputs. The text is called a prompt, and it describes the task the AI should perform. Prompt engineers use creativity and trial and error to create input texts that help the AI interact with users more meaningfully. The goal of prompt engineering is to ensure that AI models produce accurate and relevant outputs.

Coursera, Udemy, and others provide apps and modules on prompt engineering. University computer-science curricula now include coursework in prompt engineering. It’s essentially different depending on the stage of software development. Need AI help in coding? That’s one context for prompt engineering. Want AI help in applications to problems in health care, research, marketing, strategic planning? Effective prompting required there is quite different. And multiple levels of IT between these two ends of the spectrum each require their own prompting skills.

With AI threading through just about every aspect of knowledge work, it’s easy to be dismayed. That’s because AI is not only complicated; it’s rapidly growing in capability. As a result, the nature of all that interlaced professional activity will also be changing. The demands on and desirable attributes of prompting will be changing at the same pace. It won’t be long before AI capabilities are nearly human – or something more. How are humans to keep up? We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of slower change; our ancestors essentially died in the same world into which they’d be born. The opposite will be true of the present and future generations.

What’s a human to do? Well – fortunately – it turns out that perhaps, instead of whispering, “you should hold your horses.” More in the next post.

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Daniel Kahneman – and the rest of us: a perspective informed by Ecclesiasticus.

A final postscript on Daniel Kahneman. Last week I had lunch with my economist friend of more than half a century (he of the  LOTRW previous post’s footnote in reference to Milton Friedman). We were discussing Kahneman and – in the same breath – our parents and grandparents, and their influence on us and the world. The juxtaposition of this renowned Nobel prizewinner and our obscure forebears prompted my friend to share, from memory, and with no little fervor, an excerpt from Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), also known as the Book of Sirach. The verses clearly meant a great deal to him; you’ll see why in a moment.

Ecclesiasticus? This was a new one to me. Looked into it a bit following our conversation. A Wikipedia article tells us this:

The Book of Sirach, also known as The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus is a Jewish work, originally written in Biblical Hebrew. The longest extant wisdom book from antiquity, it consists of ethical teachings, written approximately between 196 and 175 BCE by Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira (Ben Sira), a Hellenistic Jewish scribe of the Second Temple period.

Ben Sira’s grandson translated the text into Koine Greek and added a prologue sometime around 117 BCE. Although the Book of Sirach is not included in the Hebrew Bible, this prologue is generally considered to be the earliest witness to a tripartite canon of the books of the Old Testament, and thus the date of the text is the subject of intense scrutiny by biblical scholars. The ability to precisely date the composition of Sirach within a few years provides great insight into the historical development and evolution of the Jewish canon.

The passage my friend shared was from Ecclesiasticus 44: 1-15. I would like to think that Ben Sira, were he alive today, would have balanced his paean to women as well as men. Because this omission is so striking, I’ve inserted modifications to the text (with emphasis added). With those edits, the first eight verses go this way:

Praise of Famous Men and Women

Let us now praise famous men and women, and our fathers and mothers that begot us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men and women renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions: such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing: rich men and women furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations: all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. 

That’s for the Daniel Kahnemans of the world. Ben Sira (and my friend) then goes on to remind us to accord equal honor to the obscure, the unrecognized:

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men and women, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise.

Of course, many others have taken up this notion. For example, Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard comes to mind. The poem merits a full read (and re-readings). Here’s one famous excerpt that provides metaphors for people, who, though special, die unrecognized by history:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
    The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air

For the meteorologists who are the bulk of the LOTRW readership, the notion of big influence of the small and un-named is well known. It’s embodied by Lorenz’s butterfly, whose merest fluttering can even cause/curb hurricanes down the road. Even the history behind the origins of this image reinforce Ben Sira’s message. Read the fine print of the Lorenz Wikipedia article, and you find that the metaphor that adds luster to his famous name probably should be attributed to Phil Merilees, another remarkable meteorologist in his own right, but one who lacks Lorenz’s renown (and any corresponding Wikipedia page).

All this by way of encouragement to each of us, to see and respect and acknowledge the worth and value of our personal ancestral lines. And we should do this often! The men and women, however great, however humble, who brought us into the world also achieved much more along the way, whether recorded or not. Some played their role in the great sweep of history. Others did their part to speak out against or slow or some of the excesses of that history. (The reality? Most probably did a bit of both.) By extension, we should also reflect on, and own, our own contributions to events and trends, and to all those who follow us. Ben Sira reminds us that all of that is praiseworthy. We should all be holding our heads high, walking tall – each and every day, good or bad.

Thanks, good friend, for forcefully bringing this point home last week – this just the latest way in which you’ve enriched my life and made me a better person over a sixty-year stretch. And thank you, Mom and Dad – and happy birthday, Dad! Today is your day. A thanks as well to my grandmother, who gave birth to you 106 years ago on this day – all 13 pounds and 27 inches of you – “the biggest baby,” the doctor told my grandmother in 1918, “I ever delivered, whose mother lived.”

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