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Saturday, March 22, 2008 -- 6:31 am

I remember reading in Montaigne that he considered his work a form of plagiarism based on Plutarch. Having enjoyed Montaigne so much, and taking so much comfort and insight from him during a difficult period, I figured it was only appropriate to see what he was talking about, and decided to tackle Plutarch's essay On the Obsolescence of Oracles, in which various characters debate why so many of the oracles famous from an earlier time have gone silent. I'm nowhere near finished with it, squeezing in a few pages here and there before my official bedtime reading, but so far it's simply a rambling discussion of cosmology that doesn't shed much real insight on the question in the title. I have to tell myself: don't blame Plutarch if he wasn't always brilliant.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008 -- 10:09 pm

I find remarkable that after all our millennia of civilization (and millennia as species before that) we still don't have an agreed-upon model of how our own minds work. I also find it remarkable that people's own thinking seems, by and large, to be so vague, undisciplined, and ill-informed that it's a wonder they get through the day at all. The two phenomena have definite areas of overlap, and may be related. Even supposedly sophisticated people rely on unexamined assumptions and sloppy methods of inference, and just about everything is "obvious" enough that they permit themselves a measure of arrogant self-righteousness. Their rudimentary reflections on the workings of the human mind, as a result, are often that they, too, are "obvious" and need only be written down by anyone who bothers. And the occasional person does bother to write it out, but doesn't seem to get it right.

I wouldn't think either aspect of the problem would be that difficult, but to judge from others' performance it appears to be. It seems to break down further into several components. Is there really a dispute (among informed people, anyway) about which methods of inference are always reliable, which are only sometimes reliable, and which aren't at all reliable? Do people in general really not know this, and if not, why on earth not? Do people know that some methods are more reliable than others but make decisions based on something other than soundness, fairness, or truth? (Do they know what the right thing to do is but can't bring themselves to do it because of emotion, confusion, coercion, or not enough time to think things through?) Does it not even occur to them to apply any method of inference because they find the issue predecided for them for any number of subconscious reasons?

In terms of the functioning of the mind, it's not fair to say that no one ever figured anything out. Aristotle and his ilk, for example, made a stab at it, as did various logicians and psychologists (many of them Buddhists) scattered across south, central, and east Asia. But the enlightenment notion that the mind operates in a mechanical fashion (see Hobbes, for example) seems so wildly off base that it forces you to wonder just how seriously they took this even at the time. They certainly didn't develop such theories through careful observation of human behavior -- it seems, rather, that some other mode of theorizing was underway. And nobody noticed or complained -- at least nobody who survived in print. And what little the psychologists of prior ages did manage to figure out doesn't seem to have much traction the average person of the modern era. Which means that supposedly sophisticated professionals will try to prove the existence of intentional misconduct from, say, a technical deviation from written policy, when everyone knows (or should realize) that not even the savviest of us consistently follows a written policy to the letter -- even when we should.

Sunday, March 16, 2008 -- 7:06 am

Last night I was reading in Jean Langenheim's Plant Resins that over a third of all the turpentine produced in the United States is used in the flavor and fragrance industries -- turpentine resins reportedly can be converted fairly easily into some of the chemicals underlying peppermint, lemon, mint, rose, nutmeg, and many other fragrances added to soaps, detergents, fabric softeners, and the like. This reminded me of a frequent complaint -- that artificial fragrances and flavors often have little or nothing to do with real-world exemplars they're named after. Hand soaps are a typical example. The current liquid handsoap in the bathroom claims to be something like "Asian pear and rooibos", but to me it really smells like banana. The previous soap claimed to be strawberry but instead had more of an artificial chocolate/carob smell to it. The one before that claimed to be a mandarin orange/ patchouli mixture that nearly killed us.

So I thought I had an easy explanation for why artificial fragrances smell so bad, and so artificial -- that the smell of a natural fruit derives from a precise balance of scores if not hundreds of chemicals, and that whoever was trying to imitate it had to cope with a limited palate of ingredients as well as their interaction with detergents not present in the original foodstuff. The second part of the hypothesis might still be correct, but the first one is so far inconclusive: the label names various natural fruit extracts (not banana), and I don't know whether labeling laws permit the word "extract" to be used only if it was extracted from an actual fruit, rather than just being chemically similar. The baking shelves of the supermarket do groan, after all (or at least used to back when people baked) with little vials of things like "artificial almond extract". So it's not yet clear.

Sunday, March 16, 2008 -- 7:25 am

Last night I also read with much surprise in George Agrios's Plant Pathology that over the past two decades there's been limited success, apparently almost exclusively in tobacco, in creating transgenic plants carrying mouse genes supporting adaptive immunity. These plants have shown a dramatically improved ability to combat some common viruses. It sounds like a fascinating series of experiments, and I'll have to find out more about it. I'm surprised that the experiments were successful at all, that, once successful, they didn't translate well to other plants, and that there was so little publicity about it at the time (as far as I know). But then, most Americans are unaware of the role that transgenic foods play in their diet in the first place, and most Europeans seem, from the press they generate, to be pretty hysterical about it, so it might be one of those areas of research that expects most of the attention it receives to be unpleasant. To the extent the tobacco industry was carrying out this research, too, I imagine the news was drowned out by other issues.