Searching for contentment

This is what fascinates me most in existence:
the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.
– Philip Gourevitch
epigraph to Blindsight by Peter Watts⩘ 


Peter Englund, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War

The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund

Englund brings history to life by telling the overall story of World War I through sharing the experiences of twenty individuals who recorded their daily life during those years in diaries.

In my opinion, this is how history should be more often told, by revealing the impact of events on ordinary people: civilians losing loved ones and their homes, soldiers trying to stay alive in the trenches and dying during assaults, junior officers struggling to lead, volunteer nurses doing their best in the face of mass casualties and massive wounds, mothers fleeing with their scared and hungry children, individual acts of courage too often lost in the toxic fog.

   My cast of characters has been chosen with a view to providing an all-round picture of the First World War, both as an event and as an experience. Many different actors could, of course, have played a part, for vast quantities of letters, journals and memoirs are preserved from the war years. The book is structured as it stands quite simply because I wanted to depict the war as an individual experience, to go beyond the usual historical and sociological categories, and also beyond the usual narrative forms in which, at best, people such as these appear as no more than tiny specks of light, flickering by in the grand historical sweep.
   Although most of the twenty will be involved in dramatic and dreadful events, my focus remains primarily on the everyday aspects of the war. For this is, in a sense, a work of anti-history, an attempt to deconstruct this utterly epoch-making event into its smallest, most basic component—the individual, and his or her experiences.

Tantor Audio, 2021,⩘ ; Vintage, 2012,⩘ 

Journey's End film coverDuring the time I was listening to The Beauty and the Sorrow, I took a break to watch the excellent 2017 film Journey's End⩘ , which follows the lives of British soldiers in trenches near Aisne in 1918 over a period of six days, while they await an expected major offensive by the Germans.

The cinematography is amazing, presenting a vividly intimate view of the horrendous frontline life that is discussed in sections of the book, and especially of both the physical and emotional damage it inflicts on the individuals involved.

More recent reading >


A COVID Serenity Prayer

We need the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference

An excellent essay by Lucy McBride, an internal medicine doctor in Washington, D.C., mother of three, and "lifelong student of the human condition."

We have to accept that there is no inoculum for uncertainty—that no human contact is risk-free, that no vaccine is perfect, that we can never guarantee safety in life.… Health also means accepting that living is about more than simply not dying.

Dr McBride publishes a weekly COVID-19 Newsletter⩘  focused on "real-time, fact-based information and guidance on getting through the pandemic, physically and mentally."

Over the past twenty years—and particularly right now— I've recognized the critical importance of replacing fear with facts, following evidence and experts, and translating complicated medical information into digestible, relatable, and actionable language for my patients, friends, and family.

Article: A COVID Serenity Prayer⩘  by Lucy McBride, MD, The Atlantic, Oct 10, 2021; Website: ⩘ Lucy McBride, MD; Newsletter: COVID-19 Newsletter⩘ .

More recent contemplations >

Living in the Rockies

Summer is waning and lots of late activity is happening.

Milkweed seed about to take flight

Milkweed fluff and seed bursting out its pod

Larger version of this photo >
More recent photos >


The Windtraveler shoji lamp

Windtraveler lamp

Dedicated to my good friend Thomas Hey'l
who has inspired me to look at design more deeply
and to take even more care about precision.

More about this project >
More woodworking >


Sharks kill an average of 10 people per year, which generates a fairly high level of fear and anxiety. It's good to keep some perspective in mind: people kill around 100,000,000 sharks per year 1; people also kill approximately 425,000 people per year, topped only by mosquitoes, which kill about 725,000 people per year 2.

Cristina Zenato swimming with sharks
Photo of Cristina Zenato, the woman who swims with sharks⩘ 

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People walk at an average pace of about 2.5 miles per hour.
Trail winding up Cow Creek valley by Toshen
Meanwhile, light travels about 186,000 miles per second, or about 11,160,000 miles per hour. It would take light about 0.13 seconds to travel around the Earth,
Blue Marble, 2012. Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
1.3 seconds to travel the 238,900 miles from the moon to the Earth,
Big end-of-year moon by Toshen
8.3 minutes to travel the 93,000,000 miles from the sun to Earth, and 1.3 hours to travel the 890,000,000 miles from the sun to Saturn. To get a glimpse of an idea of just how far away Saturn is, see If the Moon were only 1 pixel⩘  by Josh Worth.
Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
At the scale of the solar system, the Earth is a spec of dust. 1,300,000 Earths could fit within our sun.
Sun, from the video Fiery Looping Rain on the Sun. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO
Our sun, as big as it is, is just a tiny twinkle of light in a suburb of the Milky Way galaxy. Its light takes about 27,000 years to travel to the center of our galaxy.
The Milky Way in Yosemite by bgwashburn is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (cropped)
One light year is just short of six trillion miles (5,878,625,000,000). The Milky Way has a diameter of about 100,000 light-years, and contains as many as 400 billion stars, which together create a smidgen of light in our local group of galaxies.
The Milky Way: VL test PSP8 by gjdonatiello is licensed under CC CC0 1.0 (cropped) The light of the Milky Way takes about 2,300,000 years to travel just to the nearby Andromeda galaxy. Isn't it amazing that by using our inherent art of visualization, we can be there, instantly, in this moment.
Andromeda. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The observable universe is estimated to contain as many as two trillion galaxies, a tiny fraction of which are visible in this eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) Hubble image.
Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF). Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team
To get more perspective on the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) Hubble image, see the short video: Hubble Legacy Field Zoom-Out⩘ . Make sure to read the notes, too. See also The Hubble Ultra Deep Field in Light and Sound⩘  at Astronomy Picture of the Day, which adds a pointer you can use to see just how far away a galaxy or star is, as well as hear a note play that corresponds to the redshift.

To get a glimpse of an idea of just how big the observable universe is, see Neal Agarwal's fun website, The Size of Space⩘  and CGP Gray's Metric Paper & Everything in the Universe⩘ 

By the way, because of the Earth's spin, if we're standing still at the equator, we're actually moving at about 1,667 km/hour (1,037 miles/hour). The Earth is orbiting our sun at approximately 30 km/sec (67,108 miles/hour). Our sun is orbiting the center of our Milky Way Galaxy at approximately 250 km/sec (560,000 miles/hour). And our galaxy is moving through our universe at approximately 600 km/sec (1,340,000 miles/hour). Hang on!

If you'd like to move through time as quickly as you're moving through our universe, you might enjoy watching this TED talk by David Christian, one of the founders of the Big History Project: The history of our world in 18 minutes⩘ 

All distances and times are approximate.

Image credits:

  1. Hiking trail in Cow Creek valley⩘  by Toshen, CC by NCSA⩘ 
  2. Blue Marble, 2012, Earth image⩘  by NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
  3. Full moon image⩘  by Toshen, CC by NCSA⩘ 
  4. Saturn⩘  by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
  5. Sun, from the video Fiery Looping Rain on the Sun⩘  by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO
  6. The Milky Way in Yosemite⩘  by bgwashburn⩘  is licensed under CC BY 2.0⩘  (cropped)
  7. Milky Way in Summer: VL test PSP8 by gjdonatiello⩘  is licensed under CC CC0 1.0⩘  (cropped)
  8. Andromeda⩘  by NASA/JPL-Caltech
  9. Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF)⩘ : NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team