November 2015

November 2015 letter

Winter is coming. We had our second night with freezing on Harry’s birthday and it has been regular since then. We had lovely weather in the first part of the month but cold and often wet and windy in the last half.

Harry continues to work on the garage but for shorter periods – photos below. Meanwhile I have been lazy. He is 85 and putting a roof on a garage so I guess he takes after his mother.

Now that the leaves are mostly gone we see the birds and squirrels more and there is more light. That is about the only good things I have to say about this time of year.

If anyone is worried about us, there is nothing to worry about. We are far from any danger, in a quiet rural backwater.

This month I have: a couple of photos, pictures of the garage, a comparison of the golden rule with ubuntu, meaningless things that people pay for, the saga of my housekeeping, and a explanation of what life is (seriously and will a sweet GIF image). All below and I hope you enjoy them.

an optimistic spider built a web in the afternoon before a foggy freezing night - probably no flies came near

Liv Berit put this up on facebook. It is the church by the lake in the valley where Mel’s Kvale cousins have a farm. It is one of those extremely beautiful places. Vistre Slidre Norway

Photos of the garage

The roof is going on the garage - slowly but surely.

Harry pulling up rafter to bolt it in place

all rafters lifted and connected to another

half west gable framed

scaffold put up on south side

first sheathing put up

The golden rule and ubuntu

It is said, and probably true, that all religions and many non-religious philosophies feature some form of the golden rule. Different wordings and different emphasis, but seemingly the same message. Here are some examples from a list compiled by the British Humanist Association.

He should treat all beings as he himself should be treated. The essence of right conduct is not to injure anyone – Jainism about 550 BCE in the Suta-Kritanga

Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself – Confucianism about 500 BCE in the Analects of Confucius

I will act towards others exactly as I would act towards myself – Buddhism about 500 BCD in the Siglo-Vada Sutta

This is the sum of duty: do nothing to others which, if done to you, could cause you pain – Hinduism about 150 BCE in the Mahabharata

Love your neighbour as yourself – Judaism/Chrisianity – about 400BCE in Leviticus 19 Torah; 0s CE Matthew 22/Mark 12 Bible

What is harmful to yourself do not do to your fellow men. That is the whole of the law… -Judism 100 CD in Hillel: The Talmud

None of you truly believes, until he wishes for his brothers what he wishes for himself – Islam in 600s CE in the saying of the Prophet Muhammad

As you think of yourself, so think of others – Sikhism – 1604 in Guru Granth Sahib

One should be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow against himself – Great Britian about 1600 CE philosopher Thom as Hobbes

He should not wish for others what he does not wish for himself – Baha’i about 1870 CE in writing of Baha’u’llah

Treat other people as you’d want to be treated in their situation; don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you – British Humanist Association in 1999 CE.

Some are framed positively as DOs and others more negatively as DO’NTs. Some speak only of avoiding harm while others include doing good. Some make reference to your status, duty and the like but there is often nothing about the results of following or breaking the rule.

But there are some observations about all of them. They do not recognize differences in the wants and needs of different people. It seems that, they should want what I want and dislike what I dislike. This is unfortunate because our ‘theory of mind’ has a systematic flaw. We assume that others make their decisions on the basis of their character and that we make our own decisions on the basis of circumstances.

There is also the smell of individuality about the rule – all about what you can do and not what you can cooperate with others to get done. The whole notion of fairness, goodness, and brotherhood is based on our being social animals. One to one relationships are only part of the picture. One rule can only carry so much information even if our relationship with the group may be as important as with individuals.

The lists, at least any I have encountered, do not contain any golden rules from primitive societies. A simple and almost universal idea is cast as a high attainment of the big organized religions and philosophies. That is not very believable. They may have credit for writing it down and promoting it but not for inventing it.

There is another notion which some people see as just another version of the golden rule but which I see as somewhat different. Ubuntu is a concept, a word, a philosophical world view and a cultural aspect of the Bantu tribes/nations of Africa and varies from region to region. It does not describe an individual like ‘he is kind’. It describes a way of being. The literal meaning is ‘human’ but with a very wide meaning – human, all humanity, human nature, humaneness, civility, socialization, decency, generosity, dignity.Here are some forms:

Humanity to others

I am what I am because of who we are

Society gives human beings their humanity

Human kindness

A universal bond of sharing connects all humanity

A person is a person through other people

Sincere warmth to others

Communitarian values and collective responsibility

My humanity rests on recognizing your/others humanity

It is the philosophy that is followed by Tutu and used in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa. It was Mandela’s outlook. It is a very different and more powerful idea than the golden rule. To say it is another version of the golden rule is wrong – it is much more than that. It is not a simple rule but a way to live together as humans in societies.


Guaranteed meaninglessness

In one job I had I was introduced to ‘standard dirt’; my employer bought and paid for it and used it to test carpets, I think. I asked questions about standard dirt and was told that in was a mixture with certain percentages of all types of household dust and dirt. As well as the material ingredients being fixed so was the size profile of the particles. Dirt usually has the identity of its place of origin embodied in its very nature but not standard dirt, it had no location to its birth. But it allowed carpets too be compared for quality by standard tests using standard dirt.

I encountered, about the same time, ‘white noise’ used to test sound equipment. White noise was guaranteed to have all the audible frequencies in equal loudness. It had no characteristics that would tie it to a particular source of vibration, in being all notes, it became no note. People were paying for featureless static in records and tapes in order to play them on equipment and hoping to get the same white noise out of the speakers. What often came out of the speakers was what was called pink noise, white noise that had a slight colour due to uneven amplification.

A little later, I held in my hands the most expense example of meaninglessness, a Rand Corp book of random numbers. A thick book that was nothing but pages of digits in neat rows. The whole book from beginning to end was without pattern or feature or character of any kind. It was a must for any testing that should be randomly done.

When I first used a digital publishing app, I encountered ‘Lorem Ipsum’. I could see immediately why it was used. You could see how a layout was going to look without using content that had meaning. It is difficult to see the layout, as layout, if there is actual meaningful writing there. This title and piece of Latin was used over and over to illustrate layouts. Now you can buy your own unique Lorem Ipsum generated by a program that creates random meaningless Latin sentences. But the original nonsense is safer.

I recently stumbled on a blog post that gave the history of Lorem Ipsum since its creation in the 1500s by an early printer. So ‘meaninglessness’ has been for sale for a lot longer than I would have suspected. Thanks to for that insight in to the history of Lorem Ipsum.


The problem with servants

When I was young, I was expected to spend most of Saturday cleaning house. (When the house was clean, I could shop, hang out and visit friends – the usual Saturday things that teenagers do.) When I had my own home I followed the same schedule of Saturday cleaning and I had a relatively clean and tidy house.

When we went to Kenya we had a servant. We did not have a choice. There was no laundromat in Nairobi and there was no store that sold washing machines. We were gentle told by friends that if we wanted a washing machine we would have to import in privately and the duty would be astronomical. Kenya, at least at that time, did not take kindly to expats making good salaries and not employing servants. So it was that for two years, I did not do any cleaning and tidying. Saturdays and Sundays were spent in the game park with cameras.

When we came back I started doing a university degree in my ‘spare time’, that is all the time I wasn’t at work. Weekends disappeared and everything was more important then cleaning house. I became a sporadic house-cleaner. I did no housework (not even much cooking while I was studying) until the house was a mess. It would finally get to me and I would have a marathon clean. I got a reputation as a very badly kept house. Harry added to the problem by never throwing anything away (a child of the ’30s) and also rarely putting anything back where he found it. People would marvel at the amount of junk we kept and my answer was that we had no mechanism for discarding anything – except to move house.

One year I went to Washington DC for work and while there I contacted a cousin, Milly Goldstone. She and her daughter took me out to dinner but would not take me to their house because it was a mess. I explained - “don’t worry, I have a messy house.” “No, no, you don’t understand, we have had a problem and it is impossible.” Back and forth but Milly was not going to take me to her place.

When I got home, Mom asked me about my visit with Milly. And amongst other things I told her that I was not at Milly’s house because she insisted it was too messy for visitors. My mother started laughing and choking. The same thing happened with Madeline, she laughed and choked too. I was careful after that of exactly who I told and how.

Now for many years I have lived in a house that is half built and surrounded by materials and tools with dust and sawdust. I call it ‘not so much construction as a way of life’. Two houses in fact and so far more than 5 years of construction in both, but hey, I have long since lost any notion of being house proud. And I can blame it on having servants.


What is life?

When I went to school there was no easy answer to what life was but there was a list of things that were true of life. The list has changed (in wording rather than basic meaning) over the years. Here is one such list:

The 7 Characteristics of Life: 1. Living Things are Composed of Cells: 2. Living Things Have Different Levels of Organization: 3. Living Things Use Energy: 4. Living Things Respond To Their Environment: 5. Living Things Grow: 6. Living Things Reproduce: 7. Living Things Adapt To Their Environment.

Not the most satisfactory way to look at life. It does tip its hat at the three fundamental theories of biology: cellular theory, the theory of evolution and the molecular biology dogma. It touches ecology in slight way. But it does not give an overall notion of what is going on in life that makes it what it is.

There is a better way to look at life. Think of a water mill. It is built where there is a difference in the height of water. The water falls naturally down hill but the mill imposes a water wheel in the path of the falling water. This wheel captures some of the energy of the moving water and uses it to do useful things. Life puts a ‘wheel’ in the way of electrically charged ions as they move down an electrical gradient and uses the energy that can be captured to do other useful things. This is an easy metaphor to understand – no mystery here.

But the placing of the ‘wheel’ in the path of the electrons and protons requires some barrier that can force the charged particles to pass over the wheel. In the life we know the barrier as a membrane rather than the weir of a millpond. Thus we have the origin of cells. They are in essence a membrane bag that contains a living system. With no enclosing membrane – no life. Of course there is the problem of how this started. It seems that membranes can form spontaneously as long as that are particular sorts of molecules, they with a water-loving head and a fat-loving tail. The molecules will sit in orderly sheets at the interface of a oil and water, heads in the water and tails in the oil. The molecules can also line up back to back so the tails share each other’s oiliness, a sandwich of tails between to layers of heads. This sandwich is stable in water and can form a sphere that is very stable. Then the sphere can have an electric gradient across the membrane and the molecules that are the ‘wheels’ of the mill can sit in/across the membrane to harvest energy flowing down the gradient. Again this is an easy metaphor and not mysterious.

ATPase sitting in membrane driven by protons (H+) spinning the complex that makes ATP

What are these little mill wheels. This is not easy to explain without a lot of biochemistry however it is just biochemistry. Chemical bonds have energy in the sense that energy is needed or released when bonds form or break. The breaking of a bond that has high energy stored in it can give the energy to form another bond. Chemical energy is real energy like light, heat, electricity. Missing out all the complicated bits – the energy is captured by the ‘mill wheel’ and stored in a molecule known as ATP. This compound is the energy coinage of life. A compound called adenosine can have phosphate groups attached in a string. One phosphate is the mono phosphate called AMP; two is the di called ADP; three is the tri phosphate ATP. It takes energy to attach a phosphate and that energy can be used when the phosphate is removed. So the system makes ATP and that is used by all the reactions in the cell that need energy leaving ADP. The ADP is recharged by the ‘mill’ and so round and round it goes. It takes a lot of energy to force the third phosphate on the the molecule and when the phosphate is allowed to leave that energy can be used to make a bond in another molecule. What is need is a something that acts like a chemical gear between the two bonds, as one breaks, the other forms. Once the ATP is made it is like coinage and can be exchanged back and forth in chemical reactions that are embedded in protein enzymes (the connecting ‘gears’). The energy comes mostly from foods that are mostly formed by capturing the sun’s energy. But there are other paths to ATP. ATP powers muscles, nerve activity, division of cells, cell growth, and the bulk of chemistry that goes on in the cell. It takes some knowledge of chemistry to see biochemistry as completely without mystery. But once into the subject it seems more mechanical than anything else. It really does resemble little machines. Here is an illustration of a protein ‘machine’ that (using ATP) walks along a cellular ‘railway’ called a microtubule and hauls a packet of ‘goods’ from one end of a cell to the other. It really can be viewed as a mechanical system.

walking protein machine on protein road pulling protein load

There is a physical law about systems running down hill to randomness: entropy always increase in a closed system is the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is essentially lack of order. Maintaining order in a system demands that the system is not closed and can obtain energy from outside to resist disorder. This is what allows life to be highly ordered, complex and structured. There is a sort of metaphor here too – it takes energy to do the house cleaning and do the maintenance to keep a mill building from just rotting and decaying into a ruin and then disappearing to dust and dirt. The atoms that made up the building would become a random mess without an order.

What sort of order does life produce? The answer is found in very large molecules made of a small sub-units. Carbohydrates are made of sugar sub-units using various sugars and connecting them in various ways. Proteins are made of amino acids in various sequences. DNA and RNA are made of nucleotides again in various sequences. Proteins do much of the work in cells. They take different shapes and movements to form enzymes and other little ‘machines’. A cell is full of all sorts of little machines doing work: making, destroying, changing, moving – the machinery of the ‘mill’.

This protein machinery has very strict specifications. Each protein has its particular shape, action and function. Here we come to the most important of the cells machines, the ribosome. All life has ribosomes just like all life has membranes and these machines make proteins to exact specifications. The ribosome is one of the foundations of life. No way to make specific proteins – no life. What happens in a ribosome is that molecule of RNA, which is a string made up of nucleic acids, spells out a code for a protein with each group of 3 nucleic acids specifying an amino acid in the protein to be made. This RNA string is moved through the ribosome one group of 3 units at a time. There are other RNA molecules that carry an particular amino acid at one end and 3 units that will match the amino acids code at the other end. These deliver amino acids to the ribosome as they are required and the ribosome adds each amino acid to the growing protein string. The heart of the ribosome machinery is constructed of RNA although most of the machinery is made of protein. Many people consider RNA and the ribosome as the ‘beginning of life’. RNA is a molecule that can act as a catalyst of reactions (like protein), carry information (like DNA) and can be a structural element (like protein). It can in a pinch replicate itself and the RNA parts to the heart of the ribosome. In theory RNA could be its own show (information source, self-replicator, maker of proteins). But RNA is not all that stable and so it is DNA that is the storage of the genetic information. It information is copied to RNA in order to be read in the ribosome. We can think of the DNA in a cell as a library that RNA uses as needed.

In essence a primitive form of life could evolve into more complex forms. What is needed for a primitive form is a membrane sac, an electrical gradient, and the RNA of a rudimentary ribosome and a few rudimentary chemicals. Once assembled we have life and it can start of complication, sophistication, and specialization.

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About Janet Kwasniak

Retired pensioner, raised in Canada but UK citizen living in France, interested in Science and many other things.

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