Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - VI

Meanings End

We've come to the denouement of our journey. This is the final episode which contains the shocking conclusion. Hopefully, during our exploration, we have learned about the…
Good ones, poor ones,
Enticingly allure ones,
Vague ones, sure ones—
But also how to cure one's
Desires for wishes,
Although we've had our misses. 
We've endured this tour
More surely as a cure
Of what you shouldn't wish for
Unless your humbly poor.
So what conclusive wishes
Will land us all in riches?
Good question. Let's see if we can come up with some satisfactory answers. These are in reverse order of recommendation—last is best.

The first recommendation (which is really number 5) is to think small. If you're ill, wish for health, If your poor, wish for wealth—but not too much. The worst thing you can do is to let your wish bring you contentment. Remember, full contentment may be reached when you're dead. I have neither the space nor expertise to enter into the money-brings-happiness question. In general, discounting all the uncertainty about what one means, or can even know, about one's state of happiness (By the way, Daniel Kahneman says there is only a .5 correlation between what we report as happiness and what we experience.), the studies seem to suggest greater wealth and greater happiness fit together better than less wealth and greater happiness (up to $60,000/year in the U.S). But a great windfall is suspect. One million dollars, though not what it once was (or because it's not what it once was) is a nice wish. If not that, try the elimination of all remotes so, once again, we get to leave our couches and walk to TV's which have buttons to turn on and off the CD player or other peripherals.

Next, and fourth on the list, if you have taken the advice to "get to know your wish giver", and he/she/it seems trustworthy, let them decide. We've seen in the vast majority of cases that the unpoor are notoriously bad at choosing a wish. Trust is a wonderful commodity.

Thirdly, perhaps better than asking your wish giver, ask your friends and/or relatives, á la "How the Old Woman Got Her Wish". You've been following your desires for a long time now and look where it's gotten you. It's that trust thing again. These people may know you better than you know yourself, and they won't be so greedy. I know these recommendations are unconventional, but conventional wisdom has been without this seminal guide.

The penultimate suggestion is not for everyone. Use your wish to benefit someone else. I know, a once in a millennium chance and you blow it on someone else. Think of the positives, however. You get an unbelievable amount of merit, and who knows how that might play out? You get tremendous gratitude. If the wish was for money, I'm sure a good percentage will be coming right back to you in thanks. And lastly, you avoid the significant risk of woe that seems to follow wishes around. You likely get a great gift in thanks before the recipient realizes you did them no favor.

Finally, here is my last and best recommendation—but it needs a bit of background.

There is a video of Richard Feynman discussing the fantastic behavior of the very small. "Electrons act like waves—no they don't exactly. Electrons act like particles—no they don't exactly. Electrons act like a fog around the nucleus—no they don't exactly." Similarly, the three wish triad generally brings one back full circle—but not always. The poor and kind-hearted gain health, happiness, and often wealth—but not always. Wishes for absurd amounts of wealth and power often backfire—but not always. Just as science fails to find a consistent pattern of behavior for the tiny, our empirical analysis has failed to discover a law of wishes.

Oh, we have learned a tremendous amount, but empiricism has its limits. And when they are met, we nervously turn to thinking, I mean, philosophy. In the world of the small we have the Copenhagen Interpretation (or Multi-worlds, if you're into infinities). Let's try our hand with wishes.

Unlike electrons, wishes don't exist empirically outside of written accounts. Thus, we had to resort to hermeneutics. In fact, wishes don't exist outside of language. Not too worry. Just as you would have to be a madman to think the physical world does not exist outside your mind, you would have to be the same to say wishes don't exist because they aren't in the physical world. We see their destructive effect every day.

And not only are wishes born of language but so too, in a matter of speaking, is everything else. It's a two way street. Our language is stimulated by the world, but also our world is cast through language. The world both generates and is generated by language. It is through our ontological questioning that our way of being and the way of the world is experienced. And when confronted by a wish, it is our own language of the world that forms the wish and drives the resultant wish fulfillment. A wish is a pure manifestation of language as the house of being.

The being of the wish is the communicative event of language in use—its ontology both generates and is regenerated by what is said in that historical moment. So the focus, that up until now has been on the nature of the 'whatness' of wishes, can be shifted to the question of the 'whoness' of the one wishing. The world, as it exists, exists for the wisher as for no other creature in the world. Your 'whoness' determines the reality of your wish more than any outside physics. Ultimately it matters less what your wish or wish strategy is, but rather who you are. Strangely enough, this seems to be endorsed by the tales themselves.

Wishes are fulfilled based more on a Heideggerian 'whoness', than an empirical 'whatness'. So the strategy, then, is to be authentic. Move past thinking of the world (and others) as subjects and objects as those meanings end. Know thyself as you currently are in the world in order to understand your being in the world. No biology of parentage can answer of whence we came into being. We're thrown into the world as by magic and must learn what human being in the world is. Try speech instead of idle talk; wonder instead of mere novelty; and care, mostly care. That is the primordial state of being as we strive towards authenticity.

Now, if much of the above makes no sense to you, even after reading it over a couple of times, then, congratulations! You've already outpaced me in your strive towards authenticity.

Here is how the tales tell it. Live your life as if you were poor and humble. Cultivate your garden. Be generous, especially to curious looking strangers. And when the time comes to claim your wish, your 'whoness' will provide you with just the right one. If you're not comfortable with that, then just wish for a big sunny field.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - V

All the terms used in the science books, 'law,' 'necessity,' 'order,' 'tendency,' and so on, are really unintellectual .... The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.… I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. …this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. —G. K. Chesterton

Calculating Meanings

We've surveyed old tales and new, and now must fashion some meaning into it all. We seek nothing less than to develop an ontology of wishes. While in the early days, the poor and uneducated were content with instant transportation, splendid palaces, and untold riches, today we have all that and more—treasures that those kind-hearted woodsmen could never have dream of. But still we wish for more. So we need to look at the data, determine likely trends, evaluate our options, and formulate a strategy which will optimize our wish experience.

However, this is no easy task. To add some perspective, let's compare it to using the Large Hadron Collider(LHC) to find the Higgs boson. The LHC generates about 800 million events per second of which 100 per second are considered interesting and analyzed. Compare that to perhaps one wish generated per year—in good times. The LHC contains millions of sensors recording data with extreme precision. By contrast, wish data has been gathered by insensitive tavern owners, passed on by generations around wine and beer soaked tables, and recorded centuries later by tipsy academics and authors. The LHC is the culmination of years of work by thousands of scientists at a cost of millions of dollars. This is a few weeks work by one person for a few cents worth of electricity and library late fees. What I am trying to say is, don't expect a 5-sigma confidence level.

And this is complicated by the one common feature of quantum mechanics and wish mechanics: no one understands how they work. Both are logically impossible. But as Nobel physicist Richard Feynman said, "...the 'paradox' is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality 'ought to be'." I think Mr. Feynman and Mr. Chesterton would have gotten along splendidly. Don't let your feelings of what 'ought to be', hinder your chances of wish fulfillment.

To start, I'll address the burning question on everyone's mind:
No, you can not wish for more wishes.

If you were entitled to more wishes, they would have been given to you. Technically, this falls under the category of meta-wishes, which we will cover in more detail later, but I want to address this special case because of its popularity. Jinn are not dumb, plus they have been doing it for thousands of years, thousands of thousands of years, more years than the grains of sand. Your chance of outsmarting a wish granter, while not zero, is much less than you think. Here are a few common attempts to wish for more wishes:
I wish…
  • for infinite wishes.
  • that one wish actually means one hundred wishes.
  • for world peace and a frilly dress and …. (see below for exceptions to banning compound statements)
  • to have a wish granted each year on my birthday/Boxer Day/Talk Like a Pirate Day.
  • that whenever I say Shazam/Rumpleskiltskin/"Maizy doats and dozy doats" my next wish is granted.
  • for the power to change/supplement/disavow whatever I wish for.
  • if you will not grant me multiple wishes, I wish for multiple jinn (or whoever is doling).
  • that my eyelashes have the power to grant wishes.
  • to be transported to a world where multiple wishes are granted.
  • for you to suspend the law denying multiple wishes.
  • to become a wish granting entity.
To my knowledge, none of these will work. Also, just to point out how difficult the less-than-humble approach is, note that you could very well be 'granted' many of the above wishes, but, given a capricious jinni or one who judges you capricious, none of the extra wishes need come true. Language is devilishly important when going this route. For example, don't say "I wish I was wealthy" when you really mean "I wish to be wealthy."

Here is one you might try, however. At least it is not guaranteed to fail.
  • I wish for the knowledge of all the locations of magical items in the world that grant wishes.
I have it on reasonable authority that you could end up with 14 more wishes—17 tops.

Also, there have been examples when seemingly compound wishes have been granted. In "Poor Man and Rich Man" the second wish of the poor man is "that we two, as long as we live, may be healthy and have every day our daily bread." This appears to cover both the husband and wife for being healthy and getting daily bread. Don't try this at home. The couple are desperately poor and stupidly kind. The wish granter is as far up in the hierarchy as you can get, Lord God himself. Plus, the poor peasant only asks for 2 out of his choice of 3 wishes. For the third wish God suggests a new house—which he accepts.

In another instance recorded in "How the Old Woman Got her Wish", an Indian tale, an old blind woman successfully 'tricks' Ganesh. After consulting with different people before asking for her one wish, she says, "I want to see my grandson drinking milk from a golden bowl." She gets her sight, wealth, and a son for her daughter. However, Ganesh is particularly associated with good fortune and is "the remover of obstacles."

There is another way to side step this issue. Most wish givers will agree to a gift that keeps on giving. The catch is that it is not a new wish, but a continuing behavior. For example, in "The Table, the Ass and the Stick" a table continually spreads food, an ass spews gold coins from both its mouth and ass, and a stick ceaselessly beats a selected target. Also in "The Jew Among Thorns" (or, more properly, "The Miser in the Bush") we find a fiddle that, when played, causes people to dance, and the best one, "if I ask a favor of any one he shall not be able to refuse it." While there are obvious limits as to what people can do, this is a pretty clever, far ranging wish.

But more importantly, why would you ever want more wishes? You're going to be lucky if one wish benefits you in any way. We've seen the destructive power of three wishes. Unless you are a very poor simpleton, extra wishes are not going to aid you. As your wish count rises so does your probability of heartbreak. Your chance of benefiting from a thousand wishes is zero, nil, the null set, zilch; infinite wishes, less than that.

Since we are answering questions on everyone's mind, let's return to Disney's restrictions on wishes. We agree with "no wishing for more wishes", but the other 'rules' are suspect. "I can't make anybody fall in love with anybody else" is obviously not true. Just wish for wealth and your love problems are over in about ninety percent of the cases. A wealthy prince or princess is hard not to love. A wish for good looks and good manners covers 90 percent of the rest. The remaining 1% involves damsels who want to be loved in return, before declaring their love. These are the difficult ones. They have a head on their shoulders, a heart on their sleeve, or parents in unhealthy relationships. Do not be surprised if you are required to perform 3 impossible tasks to prove your love. So, if you are not especially talented in slaying giants or dragons, save your wishes.

Not killing anyone, or bringing people back to life are also bogus. Just wish that they be turned into a turnip or sent to the bottom of the sea or a safe fall on their head. And plenty of people have been brought back to life. Of course, depending on your definition of death, you could say they were just resting. Some have been brought back even after boiled in water and stripped of all flesh. The key in such cases is arranging their bones in just the right way. There is, however, a pivotal lesson to be learned from Disney here: wish granters are not all created equal. Every jinni or little black manikin have things they can and can't do. Get to know your wish giver. This is important. If we have learned anything from our hermeneutical study, it is wishing is not Newtonian science. The rich and the rational are at a great disadvantage.

As mentioned, wishes for more wishes are a type of meta-wish. Meta-wishes have always been denied, but perhaps no one has explained why better than Douglas Hofstadter. Here is Hofstadter's explanation, and why he became the bane of jinn everywhere—perhaps why we don't see more of them around today.

So you can't make meta-wishes because it could lead to absurd, illogical or catastrophic events. This includes:
I wish…
  • for greater happiness than any wish could give me.
  • my wish is not granted. (or my wish doesn't come true)
  • that no future wishes ever be granted (or the converse: all wishes come true)
  • I had never been granted a wish.
  • that wishes don't exist.
  • that my wish be granted as I intend it to be.
  • for a change in the ontology of wishes.
  • for 0 wishes. (this is a favorite of mathematicians)
Though not meta-wishes, the following are just as absurd, illogical or ill-defined, and as such should be avoided at all costs:
I wish…
  • for unlimited cheese curls.
  • for a square circle.
  • for world peace or cure for cancer, as it may be similar to a 'square circle' or invoke a "Monkey's Paw" outcome
  • that the jinni become my personal servant.
  • for inerrancy, especially when making wishes.
  • to be greater than God.
Now that we have a fairly clear understanding of what not to wish for; are there any good strategic wishes? Well, if you don't have the benefit of poverty and ignorance, historically you are in trouble. But if you really want to play, here are some possibilities. I don't necessarily recommend them. Some of these are to be used as the first of three wishes.
I wish…
  • that you answer all my questions truthfully.
  • that you provide me with a list of wishes that will not bring me misfortune, unhappiness, or death.
  • for knowledge of every wish granted and its outcome.
  • for a clear explanation of the rules about wishing.
  • for the ability to alter any coefficients of friction at will during sporting events.

[Next: Meanings End]

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Home Away From Home

                                                                    Compass Hill House
                                                                          County Cork

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Same time last year?

It seems like I posted this last year, but Maryland is once again ranked number one. Congrats. I think Martin is sitting this year out—in the stands.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - IV

So be careful what you wish for
'Cause you just might get it and if you get it
Then you just might not know what to do wit' it
'Cause it might just come back on you ten fold

Calculating Means

We've heard many narratives from long ago. What about a more modern scenario? As you might suspect it's more calculating.

Isabel lived on a cull de sac. A cunning wife, with degrees in both psychology and law, she had grown tired of her less than perfect husband. He had been a good catch, but they had grown hopelessly apart. Last week-end she realized for the first time that he danced like a boat.

"A boat?"

"Yes, honey, you do."

She was the practical one in the marriage. One day she was cleaning out her husband's pockets before throwing his soiled clothing into the washer when she discovered a curious looking object. He was forever browsing pawn shops and garage sales. This looked like an old hook-shaped talisman made of bone. She started to rub her fingers over the carved pattern when suddenly a purplish wisp of smoke arose, and an incorporeal figure appeared before her. Whether jinn or ifrit she could not tell, but was determined to make the most of her luck. The voice was frighteningly deep and powerful:

"I grant to thee, from health to gold,
Three wishes, true to what I'm told.
But when the wish itself takes hold,
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(Yet my advice—be I so bold:
Tis best to have this trinket sold.)"

The last two lines were spoken more personally, yet also with a certain resignation. Elated at what she heard, to be sure, Isabel soon gained her poise and considered her options. The jinni flame flickered impatiently, but she waved her arm for more time to think. She was calculating means to her ends… and finally knew what she wanted. She had vaguely formed these wishes before her jinni ever appeared.

"I wish to be the fairest in all the land," she said. "The most beautiful. No, wait." She hesitated, "I wish to be the sexiest in the land."

"Reflect upon what you've been told.
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(I warn you, have this trinket sold.)"

"You heard me. Do my bidding. I have no problem with my husband being ten times as sexy."

"Tis done—behold!"

And the woman saw in the mirror that the jinni held, that she was indeed the fairest, or rather the sexiest, in the land. She would have no problem getting any man she wanted. In fact, she would have no problem getting anything she wanted.

Without hesitation now, because she had carefully considered all three wishes, she said, "I wish to be beneficiary for a $100 million life insurance policy on my husband."

"Reflect upon what you've been told.
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(I warn you, have this trinket sold.)"

"Your work is quite satisfactory, but I wish you would list…" She caught herself just in time. "I wish to be the beneficiary for a $100 million life insurance policy on my husband. I have no concern about my husband receiving one for ten times as much."

"Tis done—behold!"

And the woman received the policy the jinni held out. She looked it over. It seemed perfectly satisfactory, properly dated with the correct names and amount. Her specialty was not inheritance nor insurance law, but this looked genuine. She was proud of herself; it was going quite well.

"Now for my third wish. I wish to have a mild heart attack."

"Reflect upon what you've been told.
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(I warn you, have this trinket sold.)"

"You are tiresome. I wish for a mild heart attack."

"Tis done—behold!"

"Ouch!" she cried as she collapsed to the laundry room floor. "This isn't good."
She felt a tingling on her left side. "This is mild?" But the jinni as well as the talisman was gone. She got up, composed herself. "I'm fine," she thought. "More than fine." But she decided to stop at the hospital just in case. Plus, there was another reason she wanted to go.

When she arrived at the medical center, she discovered to her horror, that she did indeed suffer a mild heart attack. Unfortunately, her heart had not been strong before. The left side of her face was now partially paralyzed. She looked terrible. Nevertheless, she felt with luck and money she could return to normal. Coyly, she asked about her husband. Had he been notified she was there? Had he come to the hospital?

Surprised, the doctor said that, yes, indeed, he had come to the hospital. "He also had a heart attack."

"Oh, that's terrible!" she feigned surprise. "Is he dead?"

"Oh no, his attack was 10 times milder than yours."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steve in Namibia

Day One -- Middle of Nowhere
Day 2 - Middle of Nowhere

Day Three -- Middle of Nowhere

My Host Family

Wild Fires -- Two That Day

Waiting for a Bus (4 hours)

The Guys Visiting Outside My Window

All Work and No Play

Grade 12

Leaving School

Wandering the Coastal Desert

Entering my House/Compound


Etoshan Pan

Monday, September 17, 2012

How do you view people?

Gap Year


For those of you who don't know I am taking a bit of my own Gap Year. I've quit my job teaching in Brooklyn and am taking some time out of the classroom. 
To keep the explanation short and sweet: 
1. I am exhausted from working 13 hour days spent trying to close the achievement gap.
2. Discovered I had a gluten allergy. 
3. Had multiple opportunities to travel. 

So thus began my adventure of My Gap Year... 

I am working hourly from my computer. I found a nice little gig as a digital learning consultant for a national non-profit for a little pocket change. And my parents have been gracious enough to open their home to me again. 
The first few weeks were a little challenging. I found myself still speed walking through Giant Eagle carrying a basket. Missing my friends, being reminded of my students with pictures and messages being posted on facebook. I was cooking crazy Thai food for dinner getting irritated with not having something to do every second of the day. 
I have spent the last week down in Charlotte visiting friends, my school prior to NY. My best friend Sue had her first baby and it just so happened that I had the time to be in Charlotte with her when her husband had to go back to work. My friends have been neglected these last couple years. Sadly I've missed a lot of baby showers, wedding showers, reserving those precious personal days for the weddings and big events. The time down here has been great. I was greeted by my old principals and co-workers with hugs, questions, and job offers. I helped out in an algebra class for the afternoon and got that little dose of students that I miss on a daily basis. The amount of perspective and inspiration that going backwards brings is absolutely amazing to me. My frustrations of missing the classroom back in Pittsburgh seemed to disappear. But I find my passion of education growing with each and everyday of having the opportunity to explore on my own.  
I've spent a lot of time hanging out with people who are around during the workday, for the most part, thats the grandmothers, both Grandma and Mimi. That time has been priceless and sometimes hilarious. My most recently attended movies were the "Marigold Hotel" and "Hope Springs" both times I was the only person in the theater under the age of 50... there's nothing like sitting next to your grandma while Steve Carell is talking about orgasms and oral sex. After the movie she responds with the fact that "it's a good thing Kevin didn't come to that one, it could have been uncomfortable." I laugh in my head, but I guess she thinks I really enjoy watching sex scenes with elderly people, while sitting next to my grandma, lol.  But overall the time has been great. I am not sick of the same old stories, and too frustrated with repeating myself all the time. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder and probably more tolerant as well. 

So I leave you with this quote from Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford: 

"you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever"

My advice at the stage, take the time to look back and connect dots from the past... I'll keep the blogging going as I continue on my adventure :) 


The Hermeneutics of Wishes - III

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of potential …. Pleasure disappoints; possibility never. —Soren Kierkegaard

Humble Beginnings

Far beyond the three wish standard model is unlimited wishes. At first blush this sounds too good to be true, but, as we have seen, more may not be merrier. In "The Shoes of Fortune" a pair of shoes takes the wearer to any time or place he wishes, from 15th century Denmark to the moon to inside peoples' hearts and more. Tellingly, the last person to wear them tires of travels, as it is hard on the body. He regrets his insatiable desire for fleeting experiences and wishes for something better: "could I but reach one aim—could but reach the happiest of all!" With that wish he ends up in a coffin, dead. This does not bode well if our quest is ultimate happiness. It's no true test, however, since no one ever knows the power of the galoshes.

In "The Wishing Skin", Jack, a wood cutter, finds a skin made of wishes. His first wish appears to be clever—that the skin be his, so he never need part with it. Since the skin is made of wishes, it shrinks a bit after a wish is used. After the usual wishes, requested by his wife, for more wealth and power, she insists he make her the greatest empress in the world. (See the "The Fisherman's Wife".) By now he is only six inches tall and not much use to his wife, who puts him in a doll house. In the end he wishes to be a full-grown wood­cutter again, "with my wife in my own little cottage, not dreaming even of such things as kings and emperors." So, unlimited wishes turns out to be no better than the standard model.

Better is "The Pink" where we have the ultimate collision between multi-worlds: a boy is born "with the power of wishing, so that whatsoever in the world he wishes for, that shall he have." Now, surely, we will find answers to our questions posed at the beginning of our quest. Well…perhaps. His first wishes aren't really his, but told to him by an evil cook who steals him away from his royal parents. The cook tells him, when he is old enough to speak, to "wish for a beautiful palace for yourself with a garden, and all else that pertains to it." A couple of points here. Notice this is a compound wish, but be heedful not to generalize, as it's made by someone with unlimited wishes. You may not be so lucky with one wish. Secondly, it's pretty open ended, as in "and all else that pertains to it." Normally that could spell disaster, but who is filling in the blanks in this instance? Is there a Platonic ideal form of 'palace' to which a generic algorithm is simply applied? Is there some unseen sentient wish granter deciding based on his or her (imperfect) knowledge? Or is it, in this case, the boy himself? We have seen in the narrative of "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" that the one carrying out the wish seems to be involved in how it is done. If you're serious about wishes, these are important questions.

After a while the cook, who, either has a bit of good in him, or is just tired of babysitting, decides it's not good for the boy to be alone, and asks him to wish for "a pretty girl as a companion." Of course they play together and "love each other with all their hearts."

Now the cook gets worried, as the boy is getting older and he may actually wish for something himself. He could wish to see his parents. So the cook decides his best plan is to kill the boy, or, rather, have the girl kill the boy. The girl, as you might expect, has a hard time stabbing the boy in his sleep and carving out his heart and tongue, so she pulls the standard ploy of substituting a hind's heart and tongue. (Note that a hart can also be used in such matters.) When the boy discovers the machinations of the cook, he uses his first wish that he, himself thought of—he turns the cook into a black poodle with a gold collar who "shall eat burning coals, till the flames burst forth from your throat." You are free to read the story, but, to our purposes, here is the entire list of what the boy (with unlimited wishes!) wishes of his own volition:
1. his girlfriend become a pink flower (because she is afraid to travel)
2. a ladder
3. over 200 deer, to be shot for a feast (Oh, those accused deer!)
4. that someone at the feast talk about his mother
5 & 6. that the pink and the poodle be returned to their former forms
That's it! I leave it to you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions, and keep them in mind.

If you think you could do better in wish selection, remember that the recipients were, in most cases, overwhelmed by the experience and could scarcely think clearly about wish strategy and the repercussions therein. Hence, we have the preoccupation with sausages, a ladder, or a young man's wish to ride firewood home. In the "Saga of Fergus mac Léti", traditionally the first appearance of leprechauns, the three wishes are for the power to swim under water in seas, pools, and lakes. Wishes are used to transform people into dogs, ravens, or carnations. Not surprisingly, many wish for a child. Surprisingly, some accept child substitutes such as a donkey, a hedgehog or even a sprig of myrtle. An ungainly lad named Peruonto is thrown so off balance that a certain princess, for all practical purposes, takes over and tells him what to wish for. At her urging he wishes himself "to become handsome and polished in his manner." What princess ever received a chance like that?! You can see from the movie Shrek how far we have come in our more reasoned, modern world approach.

Also, keep in mind that these are often the humblest, kindest, and/or poorest souls in the land, certainly without education. So to us, while many of their wishes seem naive and shortsighted, there slowly emerges another trend. Humble beginnings greatly increase your chance of acquiring wishes, and simple desires have a much better chance of success. In the "Poor Man and the Rich Man", the rich man clearly over thinks his three wishes. First, he considers the bavarian peasant, who focused on his heart's desire by asking for 1) plenty of beer, 2) as much beer as he could drink, and lastly, 3) a barrel of beer. Unfortunately, the rich man rejects this strategy as well as "all the riches and treasures in the world" because "I shall still think of all kinds of things besides later on". Of course he is right, but ends up using his three wishes in typical sausage-like fashion, only to get back to where he was before the wishes. Well, minus his horse with a broken back.

It may appear from these accounts that wish patrons appeared much more frequently in olden days than they do now. Remember, there were less people, but it may be something else. As with so many other sensations, these fabulous, almost unimaginable adventures of yore may have been reduced to dispassionate, calculating encounters in our post industrial revolution era. Is it just nostalgia, or is it that, where wishes were once rare but intense, they are now common but pedestrian. (See analysis in the comment section of "vague notions of lost innocence" vs "feelings, like species, can become extinct" vs "the power of a mounted knight…compared to the firepower of the modern state")

We now have a multitude of wish dispensers: birthday cake candles, wishing wells (for a small fee), shooting stars (sic), first stars (sic), 4-leaf clovers, wishbones, dandelions, loose eyelashes,
"if two people say the same thing at the same time, they must lock their little fingers and say alternately: Red, blue (or other color); needles, pins; Shakespeare, Longfellow (or other poets)",
"if you see a crow flying through the air, make a wish. If he does not flap his wings before he goes out of sight, the wish will come true. If he does flap his wings, look away, and if you do not see him again your wish will come true."

In short we can't even sneeze without having a wish. The point is that the experience has been lessened. We have gone from an era when only the kindest or poorest is raised to kingly status, to more of a "no child left behind" posture. Grade inflation only dilutes the reward. The best anyone can hope for from a birthday candle is a few moments of happiness and friendship. Certainly don't bother wishing for anything greater than a pony.

That is not to say that you will never encounter a talking beast, Jinni or magic currant bun. There is plenty of magic (re: alternate physics of parallel worlds) left. Science understands now more than ever that there are just short of an infinite number realities awaiting us. Perhaps we should keep our wishing on the light, whimsical side, such as turning the Bastille into a huge wheel of swiss cheese to the delight of rats everywhere or making a midget policeman taller so he needn't stand on a chair to make an arrest. Our chance for success seems, in those cases, better. And it's not that the past was a "Rousseauian paradise"—far from it. The grotesque and vulgar acts of violence, fratricide, cannibalism, and debauchery were not for children. We may now be able to match the horror with more efficiency, but we've lost some of the imaginative enthusiasm.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - II

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. —Albert Einstein

Bitter Endings

The earliest account of the successful use of wishes comes from "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" as told in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Asian folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. A fragment of the manuscript has been dated from the early 9th century, so Aladdin, or Ala-ed-Din, must have lived prior to that. The first translation in 1709-10 was by Frenchman Antoine Galland, but no record of an Arabic version has survived. In 1850, family canon prospect Sir Richard Burton, who, as an adventurer and sage, was every equal to Ala-ed-Din, produced a more elaborate version from Egyptian manuscripts.

Let me add here, in order to avoid confusion, the 1992 movie titled "Aladdin" follows only loosely the basic form of the manuscript. Disney's magic lies in making and marketing wonderfully entertaining movies, not in telling accurate histories. To be specific, there is no three wish limitation, and the 'rules of wishes' added in the movie are, at best, superficial as we will discover.

The story takes place in an Islamic 'China', so it may have been Turkestan. The wishes are mainly for transportation and riches. There is never a problem with fulfilling the wishes, but we do learn of a hierarchy of wish granters. The wish granters, in this case, are Marid, the most powerful type of djinn or jinn. Jinn are beings composed of smokeless flame from a parallel world. (See Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality.) (Also see "Desires from fires" in previous episode.) A dusty lamp summons a jinni who grants wishes of great power and breadth, while a ring summons one who apparently can only grant wishes of teleportation. We also learn that a lesser quality wish can not directly undo any wish of the more powerful variety.

So even in our first encounter with wishes, we learn that these agents, and thus the wishes themselves, are committed to an ontology that must be consistent—apparently to the parallel world from whence they come. While, in our world it may appear as magic, we must remember that these wishes are simply following the ontological principles of a parallel world. This, of course, raises many questions. Do all parallel worlds have consistent laws of nature or can these laws change over time or at whim? What are the consequences in our world when disturbed by the ripples of wish fulfillment? Can we determine the ontology of wishes, and, perhaps most important, is there an optimal wish strategy?

The story of the wonderful lamp happens to be one of the few accounts revealing the judicious use of wishes. The tale does not end in sorrow. Other than when the vizier steals the lamp, the only threat is when Ala-ed-Din, by the request of the evil vizier's brother, wishes for an egg of the roc to be hung in the palace. For some mysterious reason this is a sacrilege against the jinni's master, and he nearly burns Ala-ed-Din and his wife to a crisp and scatters their ashes to the winds. He hesitates only because he knows it was requested by the vizier's brother. Apparently, the jinni, at some level, may exercise his own free will in granting wishes, or, at a minimum, interpret them as he best sees fit.

One further conundrum is the wish for maids and slaves. At one point forty are wished for and easily supplied. Another time more are needed when Ala-ed-Din presents himself to the sultan, and a third time when his newly desired palace is supplied with horses and help. Do these humans turn up as new beings, starting life at, say, sixteen? Do they come from a parallel world? Or are they existing persons suddenly swept away from former lives to new circumstances? There's no mention of confusion as the slaves orient themselves to their new surroundings and duties. In the interest of parsimony and Occam's razor, I suspect the jinni instantaneously and expeditiously inquired of dozens of nearby poor and destitute, of which there appeared to be an inexhaustible supply, if they wanted to serve as maids and slaves. Times as they were, I suppose few would hesitate.

Moving on to the record of "The Fisherman and His Wife" by the Brothers Grimm, we get our first glimpse of problems that arise when the rules of being in our world collide with the rules of being in another. This is the first time we see that wishes will often result in the exact same existential topography as if none were granted in the first place. It is beyond the scope of this document to recount the story, but if you have not read and studied "The Fisherman and His Wife", you are at a distinct disadvantage in a) understanding what follows and b) having a successful wish experience. It has been called the "double slit experiment" of wish fulfillment.

About this time we also find the emergence of another curious trend: the wish triad. Agents begin granting wishes in threes. This paradigm appears over and over and over again lending evidence to the mystical nature of wishes. In particular we find many accounts of a recurrent schematic of (1) sausages, (2) sausages at the end of one's nose (3) reality reset prior to the appearance of sausages (or, in fact, of the wishes themselves). If "The Fisherman and His Wife" is the double slit experiment, "Three Wishes" along with its various names in numerous countries ("The Ridiculous Wishes", "The Sausage, "The Woodman's Three Wishes", etc.) is the standard model.

Sometimes the three wish matrix can have devastating effects, as when a bottle is found, and a wish is granted to each of three people stranded on a desert island. One wishes his way back home to Zanzibar, the next to Katmandu, and the third, feeling lonely, wishes he had his friends back.

The consistency of unfortunate consequences and bitter endings with regards to three wishes leads many to believe that wishes in this form are a curse rather than a blessing. See "The Monkey's Paw". As enticing as it sounds, try to avoid any encounter which may result in receiving three wishes.

It should be noted that wish granting agents are not always jinn. In "The Fisherman and His Wife" it is a talking fish. (See "Wishes from fishes" in previous episode.) In fact, whenever you encounter a talking animal, there is an excellent chance you are entitled to free wishes. It's best to maneuver yourself into a position where you can avoid the three wish dole. Often capturing the animal or in some way threatening it to within an inch of its life, will give you your best negotiating strategy.

Talking fish are fairly common and reliable wish benefactors. Fish survive under water where one can not talk, but must come out of the water into an inhospitable environment to talk. Thus, it's a strenuous and perilous task for them. They can be trusted.

Apart from jinn and talking animals, under the right circumstances you could receive wishes from elves, fairies, mermaids, and even dragons, if you can locate one. However, in general, smaller is better when looking for wish granters. Most common by far is "a little black manikin" also called a dwarf. As most accounts are translations, it's difficult to tell what is being referenced, but I suspect they are gnomes. Best avoid wishes from witches or demons, unless you have thrashed them to within a inch of their lives. The most powerful and trustworthy wishes come from God and St. Peter, but you will rarely find them traveling in the East. Many objects, especially talismans, may provide wishes. Amulets do not, but may be inscribed with charms of a defensive nature. Anything old is not above suspicion, but rings, lamps, wands, shoes, cloaks, tinderboxes, any type of containers including knapsacks (and thermos bottles), and vegetables may contain wishes of one form or another. Even bakery goods can be a source of wishes, but don't bother with dairy products.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes

On ne peut desirer ce qu'on ne connait pas. —Voltaire

A Foreword is Forewarned

Who among us has not yearned to be more beautiful, win Olympic gold, or have lunch with that little redheaded girl? If only we could be granted just one wish…is that too much to wish for? In a report entitled the "Fountain Money Mountain" in 2006, a financial services marketing agency estimated that wishing wells and fountains beguile about $5 million a year from hopeful well wishers. The Trevi Fountain in Rome alone nets $5,000 a day.

Psychologists have plenty to say about such activities and their rationales. Wishes, dreams, and fantasies are discussed in more works than you or I could ever fit in a basement-sized id or an attic of super-egos. I'll offer only a couple of thoughts on the subject and leave it to the experts. The first comes from pre-Freudian psychologist, physician, and philosopher, William, brother of Henry, James:
Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, a statesman, a warrior, and African explorer, as well as a "tone-poet" and a saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire's work would run counter to the saint's; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed.
I wish we had a word in English defined by that paragraph. I might call it James' Incompatibility Principle. Just as the Uncertainty Principle contradicts foreordination, the Incompatibility Principle denies that all your wishes can come true. You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find…a wish to design.

The second is from Laura King of Southern Methodist University, who, in a study published in the Journal of Personality, asked students what they would wish for, if they had three wishes. She does the customary examination, relating desires with personalities. And then, noting that personality traits are notoriously hard to change, writes, "The chances of that wish coming true are practically zero." So I'll leave the resolution makers, the self-help motivators, and the psychiatrists to their impossible task of probing human desires.

I will, instead, deal with the existential and essential features of wishes themselves, hermeneutically revealed from recorded histories. I will gather evidence and make my best empirical conclusions about the…
Good ones, poor ones,
Enticingly allure ones,
Vague ones, sure ones,
The best way to procure one's
Wishes from fishes,
          Desires from fires,
                    Itches from witches,
And turn them into riches.

How to eeny, meeny…
Wish selection from a genie.
How to barter harder
Short of ending up a martyr.
I'd provide the ride,
If beggars tried my guide.

The pieces of the thesis
Are proved by exegesis.
It's all quite scientific.
Hermeneutics is terrific!

Of course, you are free to ascribe any psychological inferences you may choose to either the text or the author.

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers. —Oscar Wilde

Wishes go back as far as human records, but there we find a mélange of myths, gods and heros seasoned with prayers and promises with heaps of rue, a pinch of savory sage, a few Grains of Paradise, but nary a cumin. In these earliest accounts wishes are often secondary to the story. Rarely are they differentiated from desperate prayers of the supplicant or capricious boons from the gods. For example, often Mercury in his travels will bestow a wish to an ill-mannered host. It's naught but a faux offering since the god already knows the stingy fellow will suffer from it.

We have a better chance of finding a pony in Pandora's box than wish fulfillment in these myths. Theseus was said to have received three wishes from his father Poseidon, but only one is ever recorded. Deceived into believing that his son, Hippolytus, raped his second wife, Phaedra, he uses a wish to cause Hippolytus' death at a distance. Moreover, in some accounts, the wish plays no part.

There are a few instances where wishes play prominent roles. Semele, pregnant with Dionysus by a lover she thinks is Zeus, asks him for a wish because a jealous (and disguised) Hera sowed doubt that it actually is Zeus. Zeus can't renege on the request when Semele asks him to reveal himself as he truly is. Semele, of course, is killed by the sight. Likewise, King Midas' wish for the golden touch is central to that story.

However, in all cases, we never get a sense that these are ordinary people facing actual events, but gods and kings revealing larger lessons in life. If there is anything to be learned about wishes from these mythical tales, it is "Don't pursue them, especially at the expense of others." Thus, even the earliest emanations of wishes come with a warning. And so, at the outset of our journey, I repeat the warning: Beware!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Whatever happened to Dave Barry?

Remember when we were in Chicago or Boston or Hohohocus, and every week was more or less milling around in anticipation for the next Dave Barry column? Whatever happened to Dave Barry?

Well…apparently, in a word…nothing. He is still writing for the Miami Herald, and he still is just as goofy and just as goofy looking. On the left is his current picture. 

Here, on the right, is his picture taken on the eve of the Civil War:

I discovered him again when I yearned to find out more about the only event I watched during the Olympics, Rhythmic Gymnastics. He covered the event beautifully

Here is his latest on the political conventions. As he implies, there is no point any longer in having these conventions. Thus, he adds weight to my contention that all institutions should be dissolved after 40 years. 

Yes, even those long standing churches. Religions are fine. Just get rid of the institutions, after all, in forty years they've received all their depreciation benefits. Just start new, more relevant ones. 

Oh, there's one exception to the forty year institution rule…Dave Barry.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I Remember Gruning's

[This was written with the help of care-giver Barbara. I had found a Gruning's site and thought they were still operating. It turns out the last store closed in 1983, and I can't find the site with all the memories. But all the memories seemed to be from the '60's or 70's, so I thought there should be at least one from the 30's.]

I remember Gruning's as one of my favorite places to go when I was growing up. My seven best friends and I (We called ourselves the 'Eight Belles'.) stopped in Gruning's nearly every day after school for tuna fish sandwiches and hot fudge sundaes with vanilla ice cream. We would always share with another another 'belle', so our sandwich and sundae cost us 15¢. It's a wonder we weren't all as big as a house. In those days you could only buy ice cream in a drug store or an ice cream parlor. No one had freezers at home.

They also had wonderful home-made candy. The store was arranged with the candy on the left and the soda fountain counter on the right. The tables, where we always sat, were in the back. My father had evening meetings every Thursday at the South Mountain Savings & Loan, which I think was on the same block, and afterwards he would always get a chocolate ice cream soda with vanilla ice-cream for my mother.

The Gruning's had a son, Herman, in school. I don't know if he went into the business or not. [He did. He is 94]

Monday, September 3, 2012

Comings and Goings

Tom, Mary, John, David, William, and Kathleen (for a week or two before she heads back to Paris) are in Ireland. They left Sunday. They will be in Kinsale, County Cork as before. Bon Voyage!

Peter, of course, is back in Dublin, and, as a surprise, Will is there too.

Bill and Maureen are getting royal treatment as they visit San Diego.