Humans think they are smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars, etc., and all that dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish, and play around. Dolphins believe that they are smarter for exactly the same reasons. -Douglas Adams
1. Earth Expo in Oakland April 9
2. 100-hour Garden Care volunteer position at SF General
3. Real Estate lobby persuades SF Demos to not endorse No Wall on Waterfront - which Demos?
4. Vancouver more enlightened than SF in park management
5. Colorado bans dog racing
6. Weed Workers visit Capitol/support AB 2402
7. Exploratorium has free Pi Day on 3.14
8. Wendell Berry knows he is getting old, but in a different way
9. Sunset Boulevard Greenway final design open houses April 12, 17
10. Renewal in GGP coast live oak woodlands March 31/Best of SF Walking Tours April 28
11. Born 15 March 1738: Cesare Beccaria, pioneer on death penalty and crime and punishment
12. Church of Stop Shopping March 19
13. The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy
14. Henrik Ibsen sees Ghosts everywhere, and says we can’t get rid of them
15. Are you a Cassandra or a Gorgon? What Greek myths can teach us about life, death and shopping
16. Cassandra - Robinson Jeffers
17. SciAm: Lower diet diversity threatens crops and us/Argentina, Chile decide not to leave it to beavers
1. Earth Expo, annual environmental fair in Oakland
Would you be interested in exhibiting at EarthEXPO Wednesday, April 9, 2014 10am-2pm at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland? EarthEXPO is a popular and festive lunchtime annual environmental fair hosted in downtown Oakland by the City of Oakland Public Works Agency. The fair highlights transportation, environmental health, waste reduction, water, energy, urban design, nature and community themes. This year we are spotlighting water conservation and protection.
There is room for approximately 80 exhibitors to gather and showcase their contributions to the sustainable urban environment to an estimated 2,000 attendees. Downtown Oakland is a noted hotbed of environmental, governmental, technological, and business leadership and innovation. EarthEXPO is a great chance to connect with this audience!
Would you like to exhibit at EarthEXPO? Use this link to submit your application online! https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1kzAaNAqHTotg8xMAK2xaKWweaXg6cseTMQo3lticoGk/viewform (preferred) or download a hardcopy application here. Application deadline extended to March 20.
Please help spread the word to suitable organizations that could engage attendees on environmental issues of the day. This is a great outreach opportunity, and a great kickoff to Earth Day!
For more information visit www.oaklandearthexpo.com, write firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 510-238-7611.
2. Announcement for the volunteer position at SF General Hospital: http://www.sfghf.net/volunteer.html
The 100 hour GardenCare Volunteer Position
The SFGH Gardening Department is looking for volunteers who are interested in working with us in our Garden Giveaway Program. In this program, the SFGH Gardening Department works in conjunction with the SFGH Community Wellness Program to supply fresh vegetables to clients and patients participating in weekly chronic disease management classes. Our gardeners grow produce such as kale, lettuces, chard, zucchini and beans, which are harvested, washed and bundled every Monday morning in preparation for that week’s classes. Typically we supply vegetable bundles to 70-120 participants each week, May through November. The produce is given to class participants, along with nutritional information, a recipe and cooking instructions. As a result, class participants learn to improve their health by including fresh ingredients in their diets. The results have been tangible and profound.
Persons who volunteer in this program are asked to commit to 100 hours of service, which would be broken into 4 hours per week for 6 months. Our volunteers receive a meal voucher to our cafeteria, free parking, and work credit, should they apply for a City job in the future. In addition they will be able to take home a bundle of produce each week along with the knowledge that the work they have done is helping people in our community live healthier lives.
All interested volunteers will interview with the Gardening Department and complete an application through the Volunteer Services Department (3 week process).
We need volunteers to assist in our harvest on Mondays, from 7:00am-11:00am. Their responsibilities would include harvesting, washing and bundling produce, with additional opportunities made available as their level of skill and interests dictate.
Department Contact: Anile Woods, Lead Gardener Office phone: 415-206-5413
Assist with harvesting, washing and bundling produce
Carry bags of produce to the Wellness Center
Assist in set up, cleanup of harvest tables and supplies
Help with planting, maintenance and watering of veggie beds
Ability to lift 15 lbs. and to stand for long periods of time
Don’t mind getting wet or dirty
Willing to work rain or shine
Interest in issues of food justice, the importance of nutritional education availability to marginalized communities, interest in urban farming or permaculture
3. From No Wall on the Waterfront:
CA DEMOCRATIC CHAIR JOHN BURTON ENDORSES YES ON B BUT REAL ESTATE LOBBY GETS SF DEMOCRATIC PARTY LEADERS TO VOTE NO
On the same day Chairman of the California Democratic Party John Burton came out strongly in favor of Prop. B and protecting waterfront height limits, yesterday the elected members of the San Francisco Democratic Party central committee instead bowed to the wishes of powerful developers and voted 13-12 to oppose Prop. B. These are politicians bending to the pressure of powerful developers, and it's exactly why voters, not politicians at City Hall, need to make height limit decisions on the waterfront and why we need to pass Prop. B.
Here's the list to remember of the "UNLUCKY 13" elected Democratic Party Committee members who voted with big developers against Prop. B and against voters having a voice in the future of San Francisco's waterfront:
Mary Jung - Current Chair of the SF Dem Party and registered lobbyist for the SF Association of Realtors (click to see more)
Arlo Hale Smith
"MISSING IN ACTION" members who failed to even vote at all:
"WATERFRONT HEROES" who voted Yes on B:
Read more about the vote in "SF Democratic Party sides with developers on the waterfront" by clicking here.
Hi Jake, I'm in Vancouver BC and I came across this good sign. I'll send one to GGNRA when I get home. emily
Thoughtful discussion on California trees on Michael Krasny's Forum with author Jared Farmer: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201403111000
Victory for Greyhounds! Colorado Bans Dog Racing | One Green Planet
Support AB 2402 by March 31!
Weed Workers Visit Capitol
It was gorgeous Wednesday in Sacramento for attendees at the 11th annual Invasive Weeds Awareness Day at the Capitol! We visited 120 legislative offices to present AB 2402, meeting with broad support for the issue. Funding is always tough, but we have a strong case.
We need diverse organizations to send a letter of support, and having them by March 31 will help our first hearing in the Assembly Agriculture Committee. Please contact organizations in your WMA and have each send their own letter (that's better for us than a single letter from your WMA). County Boards of Supervisors are another high priority. Conservation groups of all types. Farm Bureaus. Water districts. Ranching and timber operations. Use your imagination and help get this request out to all interested parties! See the bill fact sheet for a list of supporters to-date. Thank you!
Probably no symbol in mathematics has evoked as much mystery, romanticism, misconception and human interest as the number pi (π).
William L. Schaaf, Nature and History of π
Mathematics…would certainly have not come into existence if one had known from the beginning that there was in nature no exactly straight line, no actual circle, no absolute magnitude.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
Pi Day—Free Day at the Exploratorium!
The museum is open Friday, March 14, 2014 • 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. PLEASE NOTE: Pi Day events are from 1:00 to 3:30 p.m.
Location: Exploratorium, Pier 15, Central and Outdoor Galleries
One of the unnoticed good effects of television is that people now watch it instead of producing pamphlets squaring the circle.
Underwood Dudley, Mathematical Cranks
Tis a favorite project of mine
A new value of pi to assign.
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see,
Than 3 point 1459.
Harvey L Carter, quoted by W.S. Baring-Gould, in The Lure of the Limerick
"Ten decimals are sufficient to give the circumference of the earth to the fraction of an inch, and thirty decimals would give the circumference of the whole visible universe to a quantity imperceptible with the most powerful microscope."
Simon Newcomb, quoted in Mathematics and the Imagination, by Edward Kasner and James Newman
by Wendell Berry
I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don't think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse. And the clouds
—no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new—who has known it
before?—and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the riverbank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man. And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.
From Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010
Coming Soon: Sunset Boulevard Greenway Final Design Open Houses
Join one of two upcoming community open houses on the Sunset Boulevard Greenway co-hosted by District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang. This green infrastructure project will utilize rain gardens to capture and infiltrate stormwater runoff from 16 blocks of Sunset Boulevard. At these April meetings, our project team will unveil the project's final design concept including the proposed rain garden locations for each block along the length of Sunset Boulevard from Lincoln Way to Sloat Boulevard. Come see how your comments from the public open house, presentations, and surveys have been integrated into the project design.
Saturday, April 12
11:00 am - 2:00 pm
South Sunset Playground Clubhouse
2601 40th Avenue at Vicente Street
Thursday, April 17
5:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Saint Ignatius, Faculty Dining Room
2001 37th Avenue at Pacheco Street
10. SF Parks Alliance
March 31 -- Renewal in Golden Gate Park: the Coast Live Oak Woodlands and the Butterflies of Strawberry Hill. Two successful volunteer-based restoration projects in GGP. Rob Bakewell on the Oak Woodlands, http://sfnaturalareas.org/sites/4 ; and Julia Brashares, stewardship manager at the SF Parks Alliance on the butterflies. http://www.sfparksalliance.org/the-alliance/programs/stewardship/strawberry-hill-restoration
April 28 -- The Best of the Best San Francisco Walking Tours. Veteran City Guide Rob Spoor offers a composite walking tour of San Francisco, drawn from some of the best City Guides walking tours. http://www.sfcityguides.org With slides and commentary, Rob goes beyond the landmarks to show the city as you haven't seen it before --- highs and lows, old and new, and a sprinkling of colorful personalities. You'll get an insider's tour of the city without leaving your seat.
11. Born 15 March 1738 Cesare Beccaria
In 1764 Beccaria published a brief but justly celebrated treatise On Crimes and Punishments, which marked the high point of the Milan Enlightenment. In it, Beccaria put forth some of the first modern arguments against the death penalty. His treatise was also the first full work of penology, advocating reform of the criminal law system. The book was the first full-scale work to tackle criminal reform and to suggest that criminal justice should conform to rational principles. It is a less theoretical work than the writings of Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf and other comparable thinkers, and as much a work of advocacy as of theory. In this essay, Beccaria reflected the convictions of the Il Caffè group, who sought to cause reform through Enlightenment discourse.
The principles to which Beccaria appealed were Reason, an understanding of the state as a form of contract, and, above all, the principle of utility, or of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Beccaria had elaborated this original principle in conjunction with Pietro Verri, and greatly influenced Jeremy Bentham to develop it into the full-scale doctrine of Utilitarianism.
He openly condemned the death penalty on two grounds:
first, because the state does not possess the right to take lives; and
secondly, because capital punishment is neither a useful nor a necessary form of punishment.
Beccaria developed in his treatise a number of innovative and influential principles:
punishment had a preventive (deterrent), not a retributive, function;
punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed;
the probability of punishment, not its severity, would achieve the preventive effect;
procedures of criminal convictions should be public; and finally,
in order to be effective, punishment should be prompt.
He also argued against gun control laws. He was among the first to advocate the beneficial influence of education in lessening crime.
With the Verri brothers, Beccaria traveled to Paris, where he was given a very warm reception by the philosophes. He later retreated, returning to his young wife Teresa and never venturing abroad again. The break with the Verri brothers proved lasting; they were never able to understand why Beccaria had left his position at the peak of success.
Many reforms in the penal codes of the principal European nations can be traced to Beccaria's treatise, although few contemporaries were convinced by Beccaria's argument against the death penalty. When the Grand Duchy of Tuscany abolished the death penalty, as the first nation in the world to do so, it followed Beccaria's argument about the lack of utility of capital punishment, not about the state's lacking the right to execute citizens.
In November 1768, Beccaria was appointed to the chair of law and economy, founded expressly for him at the Palatine college of Milan. His lectures on political economy, which are based on strict utilitarian principles, are in marked accordance with the theories of the English school of economists. They are published in the collection of Italian writers on political economy (Scrittori Classici Italiani di Economia politica, vols. xi. and xii.). Beccaria never succeeded in producing a work to match Dei Delitti e Delle Pene, although he made various incomplete attempts in the course of his life. A short treatise on literary style was all he saw to press.
In 1771, Beccaria was made a member of the supreme economic council, and in 1791 he was appointed to the board for the reform of the judicial code, where he made a valuable contribution. He died in Milan.
12. Church of Stop Shopping
Please join us for Hot Sermon and Heated Talk on the subject of the sinful silence of the Earth Movement.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
6:00p - 8:00p
Bay View Boat Club, 489 Terry Francois Blvd, San Francisco, CA
1) First, a fulminating Apocalypse by the Pastor of the Church of Stop Shopping
2) ...followed by an ever so incisive Q & A period led by Savitri D
3) …and general partying between the boats and at the renowned bar
Please reserve your place today by emailing email@example.com.
We only have a capacity of 85. The plate will be passed or you can make a tax-deductible contribution today to reserve your spot.
If you can't attend, will you please share a few crumpled dollars to fund our work in 2014? Amen?
Your donation benefits the work of Reverend Billy and Savitri D's non-profit organization.
Rev Billy and Savitri D are visiting from New York, after staging invasions of big banks by extinct amphibians, namely the climate change-killed Golden Toad. Stop Shopping Choir members wore the enamel orange toad-hats with the shiny toad-eyes, sang songs, and handed out information connecting Chase's investments to the Earth crisis. And after the Rev and music director Dr. Nehemiah Luckett got out of jail, they went banking again. The "Golden Toad Resurrection" continued last year in San Francisco, Oakland, Liverpool, and London… until the Church of Stop Shopping returned to NYC for their run at the Public Theater. But something, the whole while, was terribly wrong.
Let's discuss the mysterious jinx of the Environmental Movement - at our salty worship service at the Boat Club.
The pursuit of affluence may be wrong, but it’s hard to curb human nature, finds John Gray
The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, by Raj Patel
Economists are taken seriously by governments because they claim to be practicing a type of science that can predict the future and help manage our lives. Yet very few economists forecast the current crisis and it is hard to think of any economist who has come up with compelling ideas about how to deal with it. Underpinning all the stimulus programmes is the faith that if only we can restart growth of the sort that was suddenly curtailed two years ago, all will be well. But growth of that kind – debt-fuelled expansion that inflates the value of financial assets while depleting the material environment – is what got us into the present mess. If this is the best economists can do, it is hard to avoid concluding that there is something basically wrong with their discipline.
Part of the problem is the belief that price and value are for most purposes one and the same. This equation makes it possible for them to develop impressive-looking mathematical models of the economy, but it involves a huge oversimplification of reality. As Raj Patel explains in this penetrating and admirably concise guide to the follies of market fundamentalism, the notion that the value of a good is its price obscures the complexity of markets and of human beings. Theories of efficient markets take the shifting abstractions generated by the price mechanism as actually existing entities but, as Patel puts it, using one of many vivid metaphors that stud his argument, this is like being in the simulated world of The Matrix, surrounded by “a digital rain of symbols and signs”.
The seeming precision of the computer screen suggests that something substantial is being measured and exchanged, when in fact what is being traded are virtual assets whose relations with actual resources are tangled and hidden.
Contrary to the claims of economists, the belief that price equals value is not science, an accurate representation of the world, but ideology – a way of obfuscating the world. Even some well-known economists have been forced to accept that their discipline is shaped by ideological thinking. Patel quotes Alan Greenspan…admitting before a congressional committee in October 2008 that his “view of the world” was “not right”. As Greenspan put it: “I found a flaw in the model that I perceived in the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.” This statement is characteristically turgid and Delphic, but the message shows through: he truly believed in the ideology of the efficient market.
The difficulty of the present situation comes from the fact that while few any longer believe in the free market, no one has an alternative to it that is able to command widespread support. For all this forensic dissection of free-market thinking, this is a predicament that Patel cannot escape. The first half of The Value of Nothing, showing the unreality of efficient markets and Homo economicus, continues the demolition of market fundamentalism that events have set in train. The second section, where Patel discusses options to the hegemony of the market, is markedly less convincing.
…But Patel fails to confront the most fundamental contemporary fact, which is that the majority of people in every country clearly want a type of economy – the sort that rich countries have enjoyed in the recent past – that the planet cannot sustain. A passionate activist, he believes problems of resource scarcity can always be solved by fairer distribution. However, the growth-oriented lifestyle of rich countries is not unsustainable because it is unjust; it is unsustainable because the Earth’s resources are finite. It may be true that the imbalance between human demands and the environment could be diminished if enough people rejected material affluence as their main goal in life. But this is an extremely nebulous possibility and one that highlights the deepest difficulty for Patel’s analysis.
Oscar Wilde may have been right that people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, a remark Patel cites at the start of his book, and which gives him its title. But what is value if it is not price? It is telling that when trying to flesh out a non-market account, Patel turns to religion, in this case Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition gives him an understanding of human wellbeing that does not centre on the satisfaction of wants. Like the ancient European Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, Buddhism proposes that happiness lies in shrinking the self – in giving up our wants, rather than forever chasing after them. It is a thought that occurs to many well-off people from time to time, but it is hard to imagine large numbers of people ever acting on it.
Theories of value that focus on curbing desire run up against the demand for self-realisation, which is one of the strongest impulses in modern life. To be sure, the pursuit of self-realisation does not often result in happiness. But is it happiness that most people are pursuing? Or is it stimulus and excitement? In the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, Patel tells the reader, the introduction of satellite television has been followed by a crime wave. He seems to think this fact strengthens his argument. But what it tells us is that no culture can resist the dangerous charms of a life spent in insatiable desire.
Guardian Weekly 08.01.10
It was on March 13 in 1891 that Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts opened on the London stage . Ghosts was considered a controversial play because it included content about incest and sexually transmitted diseases, and Ibsen refused to give his audiences the happy endings they were used to. When it premiered in London, the play had already been banned in St. Petersburg on religious grounds.
Henrik Ibsen predicted the public's negative reaction to Ghosts. He wrote in 1882: "It may well be that the play is in several respects rather daring. But it seemed to me that the time had come for moving some boundary-posts. And this was an undertaking for which a man of the older generation, like myself, was better fitted for than the many younger authors who might desire to do something of the kind. I was prepared for a storm; but such storms one must not shrink from encountering."
Henrik Ibsen wrote in Act 2: "I almost think we're all of us Ghosts ... It's not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."
The Wisdom of the Myths by Luc Ferry – review in Guardian Weekly
Are you a Cassandra or a Gorgon? What Greek myths can teach us about life, death and shopping
Mythical figures such as Medusa hold up a mirror to our own mortality. Photograph: Getty
Even today, 2,000 years after Christianity tried to consign them to the waste bin labelled "wicked pagan fictions", the myths of the ancient Greeks live and breathe.
Perhaps you have had a difficult day at work. A lot of energy has been spent on a big project. When you get home your partner asks how it went. Which adjective do you reach for to mythologise your labours? Were they: a) Herculean? You were called on to make heroic efforts to surmount seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but eventually succeeded; b) Sisyphean? Your boss ordered you to take on a long-term and ultimately hopeless task; or c) Augean? It was your turn to clean everything up.
You are having trouble getting through a newspaper book review. What is the problem? Is it because the argument is of labyrinthine complexity? Or is it because the author's Procrustean tendency to shoehorn classical metaphors and similes into every sentence is becoming irksome?
You are interviewing candidates for a senior position in your company. This one seems to have the Midas touch. But his achilles heel is that he was doing so well in his previous job that he will be suspected of being a Trojan horse, bringing the company into chaos in readiness for a cheap takeover. You don't want to be a Cassandra, but the appointment would be like opening a Pandora's box. Yet your boss was adamant and she can be a bit of a Gorgon.
It is not just in English that these allusions to ancient Greek myths survive, though they are used in different languages in subtly different ways. The chimaera was a mythical fire-breathing monster – part lion, part snake, part goat – and when Ratna Lachman in a recent Guardian blog referred to "The chimaera of an Asian woman influencing the levers of Tory power" (the reference was to Baroness Warsi), she was drawing on the word's connotations of monstruous and implausible incongruity. But the French chimère and Spanish quimera have a gentler and more sympathetic meaning, referring to idle fantasies or pipe dreams. The Spanish use the wonderful termanfitrión, after Amphitryon, Heracles's foster father, to refer to a (good) host, while the French use the name of his slave Sosia to refer to a double – sosie, an allusion that will mystify the British readers of Luc Ferry's The Wisdom of the Myths, as it briefly mystified me.
Ferry lists several other examples of Greek mythology in everyday speech in his prologue, but he is worried that we make these references without any longer knowing the stories from which they derive. We tend to use the term Cassandra, for instance, to refer to someone forever predicting doom and gloom rather than someone whose warnings are always ignored and always proved right. Most of his book is devoted to correcting this general ignorance by recounting the Greek myths at length, starting with the cosmogony outlined in Hesiod's Theogony: in the beginning was Chaos, then out of Chaos popped the goddess earth, Gaia, then the nearly bottomless depths of Tartarus, then Love, then Heaven … He finishes 300 pages later with the suicide of Oedipus's daughter Antigone and the destruction of her city by the sons of the Seven Against Thebes.
Sometimes he lingers over particular episodes, recounting the tales at length; at other times he feels the need to move a little more quickly. On the voyage of Odysseus: "The episodes that follow are so well known, and so often told that there is no need to do more than summarise them here." Generally he is sure-footed and reliable, and confident enough to cite different versions of myths in the work of different authors. For this he acknowledges the assistance of Timothy Gantz's essential collection Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources.
But some of the most famous of Ferry's "Greek myths" barely feature in Gantz because they are not really Greek. Pygmalion is a Phoenician name and the story of his love for a statue comes from Phoenician Cyprus. Midas is from Phrygia in central Turkey, as is the Gordian knot, the cutting through of which is not a "myth" in any traditional sense, but one of the more memorable deeds of Alexander the Great. And the excesses of the sybarites may have been exaggerated into mythic proportions, but the city of Sybaris belongs to history. As for the magnificent host Amphitryon and his slave Sosia, they are not so much timeless figures of age-old stories with deep roots in Greek cultural memory as characters in a popular play by Molière, ultimately based on a mythological comic burlesque of the fourth century BCE, in other words the products of singular satirical imaginations.
He also acknowledges the influence of Jean-Pierre Vernant, one of the greatest scholars of the ancient world who towards the end of his life published The Universe, the Gods and Men, a retelling of Greek myths in the manner in which he had told them to his grandchildren. Ferry's book, too, emerges from the practice of telling Greek myths to his children, and some French critics and readers of the book objected to what they thought was a condescending tone – in other words the tutoiement used in addressing inferiors – of which English readers will be mostly oblivious. Yet this is very much a "Greek Myths for Grownups", and although there is room for amusement and wry exclamation marks – "Cronus must be given something to swallow instead of a baby!" – the general mood is a serious one. The chapter that includes the myths of Sisyphus and Orpheus and the rape of Persephone has the forbidding title: "Hubris: The Cosmos Menaced By a Return to Chaos – Or, How the Absence of Wisdom Spoils the Existence of Mortals", and the author is not afraid to sprinkle the text with references to Nietzsche and Spinoza.
If his first ambition is to reconnect us with myths and reawaken the metaphors that are sleeping in everyday language, his next goal is to mine the myths for things to teach us, lessons that are still applicable today. At first sight this would seem to be a more difficult selling point. What are the lessons of Greek myth? Always carry a mirror in case you bump into Medusa? If a shower of gold appears suddenly in your prison cell avoid the temptation to gather it into your lap? Don't have sex with bulls, no matter how sexy they seem, or your children will suffer the consequences? If you have to award an apple labelled "To the Fairest" to one of three goddesses, always give it to Hera or slice it in three?
What, for instance, is the life lesson in the story of Achilles' heel? When you are trying to immortalise your babies by burning off their mortality in a fire, make sure you lock the door to stop your husband interrupting? And what is the lesson of the story of poor unwitting Oedipus? Don't murder anyone old enough to be your father and don't marry anyone old enough to be your mother?
Nothing so trivial. Instead Ferry draws out deeper meanings of myths about how the world works and of the place of mortals in it. Mortality is indeed one of the great themes of Greek myth. Stories about Orpheus, the crime and punishment of Sisyphus and the fate of Achilles reflect on the great gulf that separates us from the immortal gods in a way that is quite foreign to salvationist religions, which emphasise immortality and afterlife, our similarity to the divine and the closeness of the divine to us – thus dodging, Ferry would suggest, the facts of death.
Indeed The Wisdom of the Myths is part of a grand enterprise to revive practical wisdom and secular humanism. In certain respects, Ferry is a more philosophical and more French version of Richard Dawkins. In another part of his astonishing curriculum vitae, he was a minister for education, responsible for implementing the law on secularity in schools limiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols – otherwise known as the French headscarf ban.
In fact this element of his commentaries on Greek myth is subtle and full of wisdom. In particular his chapter on Oedipus and those who suffer terrible misfortunes through no fault of their own is full of pathos and humanity. For that reason alone this book is worth reading, and those who need one will also get a refresher course in Greek mythology as part of the bargain.
What is more difficult to grasp is Ferry's notion that through the wisdom contained in Greek mythology, through its understanding of the essential balance between kosmos (order) and chaos, we can rise above the vacuity of modern consumer society. Can Greek mythology throw light on the mortal condition and our place in the world? Yes. I think so. Can it inoculate us against excessive shopping and channel-hopping? Probably not.
The mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingers
Hooked in the stones of the wall,
The storm-wrack hair and screeching mouth: does it matter, Cassandra,
Whether the people believe
Your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth, they'd liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying; but religion—
Vendors and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kind
Wisdom. Poor bitch be wise.
No: you'll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And gods disgusting—you and I, Cassandra.
17. Scientific American
FEATURES: Argentina and Chile Decide Not to Leave It to Beavers [Slide Show]
Importing the incisor-toothed hydrologists from Canada to the southernmost tip of South America seemed like a good idea in 1946, but it wasn’t
60-SECOND SCIENCE PODCAST: Lower Diet Diversity Threatens Crops and Us
More of the world's population is eating the same stuff, meaning more monocultural crops at risk for disease and less gut microbial diversity, a health problem for humans. Cynthia Graber reports