Contemplations – 8
I'm incurably curious about many aspects of this journey of ours. Here are a few noteworthy items I've stumbled across that I'm making a note of so I can revisit them from time to time.
"I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I'm not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can't figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell—possibly. It doesn't frighten me."
– Richard Feynman. BBC interview with Feynman⩘ .
The Bear Man by Rumble Strip
I rarely mention anything on these pages more than once, but I think this is the third time I'm writing about Rumble Strip, Erica Heilman's wonderful podcast, one of my all-time favorites.
The Bear Man episode⩘ is fantastic. It's one of Erica's classic conversations, this time with Ben Kilham. Ben and his sister are the only licensed bear rehabilitators in the state of New Hampshire. For more than 25 years, they have been caring for orphaned or injured black bear cubs at the Kilham Bear Center⩘ , and then releasing them back into the wild.
Through his experience observing their reintegration into the wild bear social structure, Ben has become perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the U.S. about black bear behavior. He is a gentle soul, and his stories about his experiences are eye opening, often funny, and truly heart warming.
Professor Heather Cox Richardson
I've been trying to get a handle on the impeachment hearings by reading a variety of news sources: Axios, Washington Post (especially the commentary by conservative opinion writer Jennifer Rubin), CNN, Fox News, Reuters, and the Stay Tuned with Preet and What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law podcasts. Yet I remained confused by aspects of this unfolding, historical story.
Then I came across a reference on a favorite website that I read daily (and enthusiastically support via a membership), KOTTKE.ORG⩘ , to a newsletter by Professor Heather Cox Richardson called Letters from an American⩘ , about which Jason Kottke commented: "I have been told by reliable sources that Heather Cox Richardson's 'Letters from an American' newsletter is the most informative & level-headed daily recap of the impeachment proceedings."
Kottke has introduced me to a trove of amazing resources on and beyond the internet, so I decided to take a look. I read the first post, November 19, 2019, and was immediately impressed. I spent the rest of the evening going back to the introductory post in the series, November 5, 2019, and slowly reading my way through the daily posts. At last, I've found a perspective I've been searching for.
Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College⩘ . She says this in the introduction to her newsletter: "I'm a history professor interested the contrast between image and reality in American politics. I believe in American democracy, despite its frequent failures." On her About Letters from an American⩘ page, she writes:
Historians are fond of saying that the past doesn't repeat itself; it rhymes.
To understand the present, we have to understand how we got here.
That's where this newsletter comes in.
I'm a professor of American history. This is a chronicle of the Ukraine Scandal, but because you can't get a grip on today's politics without an outline of America's Constitution, and laws, and the economy, and social customs, this newsletter explores what it means, and what it has meant, to be an American.
These were the same questions a famous observer asked in a book of letters he published in 1782, the year before the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War.
Hector St. John de Crevecoeur called his book "Letters from an American Farmer."
Like I say, history doesn't repeat itself, but it sure rhymes.
In the conclusion to her November 20, 2019 post, Richardson says:
We are in a profound crisis, but I am hopeful. With today's revelations, the stakes are finally quite clear. This is not about Republicans or Democrats, but about America, and those of us who care about democracy now have a fighting chance of keeping it.
An additional note, a couple weeks later: In the opening statement of the House Judiciary Committee's first impeachment hearing on December 4, 2020, Chairman Jerry Nadler shared the following historical perspective, which I found profoundly eye opening.
Washington warned us "to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government."
Adams wrote to Jefferson: "As often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign influence recurs."
Hamilton's warning was more specific and more dire. In the Federalist Papers, he wrote that the "most deadly adversaries of republican government" would almost certainly attempt to "rais[e] a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union."
In short, the Founders warned us that we should expect our foreign adversaries to target our elections, and that we will find ourselves in grave danger if the president willingly opens the door to their influence.
What kind of president would do that? How will we know if the president has betrayed his country in this manner for petty, personal gain?
Hamilton had a response for that as well. He wrote:
"When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents … known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion … [i]t may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may 'ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.'"
Alexander Hamilton wrote his response more than 227 years ago in "Objections and Answers respecting the Administration of the Government⩘ ," August 18, 1792.
Here's another excerpt from Hamilton's letter:
The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.
The Buddha of Oakland
I really like the story shared by the short video, Buddha of Oakland⩘ . Every time I think of it, I smile.
When Dan Stevenson placed a stone Buddha across the street from his house in Oakland's Eastlake neighborhood, it was out of desperation. He never imagined the positive chain of events that would ensue.
The shrine that has evolved on the site has become so well known that buses full of tourists now come by for visits, and it is featured on Google Maps: The Buddha of Oakland⩘ .
Vimeo: Buddha of Oakland⩘
Until the End of the World
This is fun!
Until the End of the World, the 1991 film by Wim Wenders, is my all-time favorite. Beautiful cinematography and an incredible soundtrack (U2, Talking Heads, Elvis Presley, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Jane Siberry with k.d. lang, and on and on) frame an awesome story starring an amazing cast including the enthralling Solveig Dommartin (who also co-authored the story with Wenders) as Claire Tourneur, William Hurt, Jeanne Moreau, Sam Neill, Max von Sydow, Ernie Dingo, Rüdiger Volgler, Chishû Ryû, Kuniko Miyake, David Gulpilil, Charlie McMahon, and many others.
Taking place in the near future (now the past … but still somehow feeling futuristic) in exotic locations across the world, the film opens in the French countryside, travels to Paris, Berlin, Moscow, then along the Trans-Siberian Railway through China, followed by visits to Japan and San Francisco, before landing in the Central Australian Outback, and even finally launching to the International Space Station. Even as its depiction of cutting edge sci-fi tech has aged, I've still been enthralled every time I have watched it.
Years ago, I heard a rumor that a Criterion Collection release was in the works. Ever since then, I've been checking their website periodically to see if there was any update, and was at last rewarded to find information about the upcoming release of the restored 4K, 287-minute director's cut (by comparison, the U.S. version currently available on iTunes is 157 minutes). I can't wait to experience what the additional two hours will reveal. Pre-order placed!
A good article about Wender's journey making this film: Until the End of the World: The End of the Road⩘ :
You can sense this openness, this anxious awe at the vastness of the world, in every globe-hopping minute of Until the End of the World. Wenders famously reached out to twenty of his favorite international musical acts to contribute a song they might imagine themselves playing in the year 1999. Almost all of them accepted the challenge, and he wound up with an epoch-defining rock soundtrack, which could be heard only in bizarre snippets in the shortened version but is allowed to breathe in the full director's cut, where the music becomes just as much a part of the aura of the film as its images.
Update: Well, it was well worth the wait. Long my favorite film, even in the shortened theatrical release—Wenders referred to that release as the Reader's Digest version—in its full-length glory, it is an astonishing work of art.
Until the End of the World⩘ , a Wim Wenders Film, 1991, The Criterion Collection, December 10, 2019 release.
Saturn, June 2019
These glimpses into the beyond provided by the Hubble Space Telescope often leave me feeling a deep sense of awe.
Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 observed Saturn on June 20, 2019, as the planet made its closest approach to Earth, at about 845 million miles away.
Saturn's Rings Shine in Hubble's Latest Portrait⩘
Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL Team
The 1619 Project
"A major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country's history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are."
– The 1619 Project⩘ , The New York Times Magazine, August, 2019
Astonishing. Educational. Devastating. Outrageous. Infuriating. Heartwrenching. A stark and also inspirational example of the power of resiliency.
I've been reading through this collection of essays, photo essays, short stories, and poetry slowly and carefully, leaving plenty of time in between each for contemplation and reflection. I've been deeply touched. My view of American history has been changed.
The only thing I didn't like was the overly fancy design of the online presentation, which I found difficult to navigate. So I created my own simple table of contents:
The 1619 Project – table of contents
Update Mar 2021: I'm well aware of some of the criticisms that have been and are being leveled at the 1619 Project. I think some of the historians are correct about some of the points they raise in their scholarly analyses. But I read the 1619 Project from a different perspective: I see it as an opportunity not to replace my view of our history, but rather to expand upon it. One of the key criticisms centers on "understanding 1619 as our true founding." It's interesting, I did not read that as diminishing the significance of 1776; rather, I read it as broadening our understanding of what led up to 1776. The way I see it, there's no denying that the seeds for what became the United States of America were sown in 1619. Gaining a better understanding of the period between 1619 - 1776 seems incredibly valuable to me. Again, that doesn't diminish the significance of 1776; rather it roots it in a more honest foundation.
Update May 2021: Professor Heather Cox Richardson has a good summary of this in her latest daily post: Letters from an American, May 2, 2021⩘
The Story of Us
The Story of Us⩘ is a fascinating long read from Tim Urban—the brilliant and entertaining storyteller and illustrator behind the Wait But Why blog⩘ . As I'm slowly reading through this in-depth exploration, I'm finding that I'm growing to understand our world, which so often seems entirely insane to me, a bit better.
The Story of Us
Chapter 0: Introduction⩘
Part 1: The Power Games
Chapter 1: The Great Battle of Fire and Light⩘
Chapter 2: A Game of Giants⩘
Chapter 3: A Story of Stories⩘
Part 2: The Value Games
Chapter 4: The Enlightenment Kids⩘
Chapter 5: The Mute Button⩘
Chapter 6: The American Brain⩘
Part 3: Thinking, In 3D
Chapter 7: The Thinking Ladder⩘
Chapter 8: Idea Labs and Echo Chambers⩘
Part 4: Politics, in 3D
Chapter 9: Political Disney World⩘
Part 5: A Dangerous Trend
Chapter 10: A Sick Giant⩘
A few years ago, Tim gave what turned out to be one of the all-time favorite TED Talks: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator⩘ , during which he introduced the Instant Gratification Monkey, who exerts a large influence on many, if not all of us, and who went on to become an endearing plush toy.
Not being a TED Talk junkie, I hadn't previously seen this talk, so it a was delight to be introduced to the ideas Tim shares through it.
Jupiter, June 2019
Hubble Space Telescope view of Jupiter, June 27, 2019⩘
Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)
Complete Milky Way perspective
Breaking time / Bending space - Complete Milky Way perspective between Lebanon and Chile, separated by 6 months by Maroun Habib, Astrophotographer
Jeremy Keith, a web developer and author living and working in Brighton, England, has posted a nice compilation of design principles—organized into categories: People, Organisations, Formats, Software, and Hardware—on his website Adactio⩘ .
A Very Brief History of Mathematics
One of the things that's really great about mathematics is that once something is true in mathematics, it's true forever, and so the things that were established—often with very messy notation, back in 2,000 B.C.—are still true today, and we still teach them to kids today: the platonic solids, the icosahedra that you find from ancient Egypt, still look very modern because icosahedra are still the same as they ever were. It's a nice feature that while so much has changed in human society and the development of human knowledge, one of the things that remains identical is anything that was established in mathematics, even a very long time ago. So that a pretty neat feature—and a unique feature— of that field.
– Stephen Wolfram
Tokyo subway's duct-tape typographer
I love this story! Chris Gaul shares this wonderful story on Medium about a Tokyo subway security guard, Shuetsu Sato, who creates beautiful signage out of duct tape in order to help the people he takes care of find their way more easily.
Sixty-five year old Sato san wears a crisp canary yellow uniform, reflective vest and polished white helmet. His job is to guide rush hour commuters through confusing and hazardous construction areas. When Sato san realised he needed more than his megaphone to perform this duty, he took it upon himself to make some temporary signage. With a few rolls of of duct tape and a craft knife, he has elevated the humble worksite sign to an art form.
"Shinjuku Station was my first post, and it was under construction at the time, so I had to guide passengers using a megaphone. But there were so many people. Guiding them all with just my voice was impossible. Most of the people couldn't even hear me. So I decided to make some signs to guide people that would really stand out."
Although he had no formal design training, he created an aesthetic grid system for his stylized lettering, which has become highly regarded by other designers, who have given it the name "Shuetsu Sans."
Chris Gaul, "Tokyo subway's humble duct-tape typographer⩘ ." Medium, Jul 24, 2019.
44 African Americans Who Shook Up the World
Very interesting snapshots of the "44 Most Influential Black Americans in History." From the introduction:
This is a list of The Undefeated 44, a collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.
The portraits by Robert Ball illustrating the snapshots are amazing. The following image combines two of the portraits: Ida B. Wells⩘ , 1862 - 1931, a fearless investigative journalist known as the "Sword Among Lions," (she was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020⩘ ) and co-founder of the NAACP; and Frederick Douglass⩘ , 1818 - 1895, a leader of the abolitionist movement, fiery orator, writer, and statesman.
In 1892, Douglass wrote in a letter to Wells:
Dear Miss Wells:
Let me give you thanks for your faithful paper on the lynch abomination now generally practiced against colored people in the South. There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.
Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.
But alas! even crime has power to reproduce itself and create conditions favorable to its own existence. It sometimes seems we are deserted by earth and Heaven yet we must still think, speak and work, and trust in the power of a merciful God for final deliverance.
Very truly and gratefully yours,
Cedar Hill, Anacostia, D.C., Oct. 25, 1892
Warming Stripes for Colorado from 1895-2018
The Show Your Stripes website provides an interactive tool that creates temperature stripes for different areas of the world. The one for Colorado, the state where I live, confirms my experience of the change that is occurring.
Excerpts from their FAQ:
These 'warming stripe' graphics are visual representations of the change in temperature as measured in each country over the past 100+ years. Each stripe represents the temperature in that country averaged over a year. For most countries, the stripes start in the year 1901 and finish in 2018. For the UK, USA, Switzerland & Germany, the data starts in the late 19th century.
For virtually every country or region, the stripes turn from mainly blue to mainly red in more recent years, illustrating the rise in average temperatures in that country.
For most countries, the data comes from the Berkeley Earth temperature dataset, updated to the end of 2018. For some countries (USA, UK, Switzerland & Germany) the data comes from the relevant national meteorological agency. For each country, the average temperature in 1971 - 2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red colours, and the colour scale varies from +/- 2.6 standard deviations of the annual average temperatures between 1901-2000.
Website: Show Your Stripes⩘
Graphics and lead scientist: Ed Hawkins
Data: Berkeley Earth, NOAA, UK Met Office, MeteoSwiss, DWD.
How language shapes the way we think
Lera Boroditsky, Associate professor of cognitive science at University of California San Diego, gave this interesting talk at TEDWomen 2017. I've watched it multiple times and have gotten more out of it each time.
Three ideas stand out for me. First, haw language can shape the way we organize time. English-speaking westerners tend to organize events on a time scale from left to right. But for the Kuuk Thaayorre people in Australia who speak Paman, a language rooted in cardinal directions, time is viewed as moving towards a person who is facing east, and away from a person who is facing west.
The second is how differently we may view events depending on our language, which is really worth keeping in mind as we attempt to communicate across cultures.
People who speak different languages pay attention to different things depending of what their language usually requires them to do. So we show the same accident to English speakers and Spanish speakers, English speakers will remember who did it because English requires you to say, "He did it; he broke the vase." Whereas Spanish speakers might be less likely to remember who did it, if it's an accident, but they're more likely to remember that it was an accident. They're more likely to remember the intention. So, two people watch the same event, witness the same crime, but end up remembering different things about that event. This has implications, of course, for eyewitness testimony. It also has implications for blame and punishment. So if you take English speakers and I just show you someone breaking a vase, and I say, "He broke the vase," as opposed to "The vase broke," even though you can witness it yourself, you can watch the video, you can watch the crime against the vase, you will punish someone more, you will blame someone more if I just said, "He broke it," as opposed to, "It broke." The language guides our reasoning about events.
Finally, there is this glimpse into the incredible gift of cognition.
Now, the beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is. Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000—there are 7,000 languages spoken around the world.
How language shapes the way we think⩘ , Lera Boroditsky, TEDWomen 2017
When I got a decent camera, I discovered that it helped me to see the world around me in a much more immersive manner; I began noticing things I might have walked right past previously, including fungi like this happy cluster that I noticed alongside the Buchanan Pass Trail.
Understanding this gift that photography gives me makes me even more deeply appreciate a set of photographs of fungi by Alison Pollack that I came across. She is fortunate to be in Northern California, which typically receives much more rainfall than we do here. The variety of fungi she has photographed, some of which are incredibly tiny and unlike anything I've seen before, is astonishing.
It's well worth it to take some time to slowly peruse her fascinating collection.
marin_mushrooms⩘ by Alison Pollack
Update May 2021 – some more of her wonderful photos: Macro Photos Reveal the Microscopic World of Mushrooms and Slime Molds⩘
One Breath Around The World
I'm at a loss for words except to say this is one of the most beautiful videos I've ever experienced. Featuring Guillaume Néry. Filmed by Julie Gautier (on breath hold!). Use headphones or good speakers so you can hear the subtle sounds.
Is The Great Wave off Kanagawa a realistic depiction?
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a well-known woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, was first published sometime around 1830. The first print in his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, it depicts a giant wave breaking over three fishing boats off the coast near the town of Kanagawa.
Recently, a team of researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh have been studying how these unexpected so-called "freak" or "rogue" waves can form. They have discovered that, under the right conditions, two sets of smaller waves intersecting at 120 degrees can result in these gigantic waves forming. Running tests in their wave pool, they even created a rogue wave very similar to Hokusai's Great Wave.
Still shot from the video Freak wave created in lab mirrors Hokusai's 'Great Wave'⩘
Like many people, I have been enjoying Hokusai's woodblock print for most of my life. But I had always presumed it was a highly stylized interpretation. How amazing it is to now learn that it is likely a realistic rendition of an actual, if incredible, natural phenomenon! My appreciation of the print has deepened.
From an article by Daniel Oberhaus in Motherboard⩘ , Jan 22 2019:
On New Year's day, 1995, the Draupner oil rig off the coast of Norway was experiencing some rough weather. According to a wave log kept at the station, the rig was pounded by 40-foot waves for most of the day, but shortly after 3 PM a single 80-foot wave appeared out of nowhere and slammed into the rig at 45 miles per hour.
Why forgetting may make your mind more efficient
Fascinating article about what recent research is revealing about the way the brain processes information.
Forgetfulness is not necessarily a sign of a faulty memory. "In fact," Wimber says, "it's been shown over and over in computational models and also in animal work that an intelligent memory system needs forgetting."
Forgetting is essential, some researchers now argue, because the biological goal of the brain's memory apparatus is not preserving information, but rather helping the brain make sound decisions.
By the way, I forgot where I put the image that I was going to add to this post.
Tom Siegfried. "Why forgetting may make your mind more efficient⩘ ." Knowable Magazine, Jan 14, 2019.
The HU: Mongolian New Hunnu Rock
This is one of the most interesting new sounds in music I've heard in a long time! Combining traditional Mongolian instruments, throat singing, and deep bass rock.
When we do this, we try to spiritually express this beautiful thing about Mongolian music. We think we will talk to everyone's soul though our music. – Temka, band member
The album's title, The Gereg, takes its name from the term used for the first diplomatic "passport" issued by the Mongol Empire during the time of Genghis Khan. The band's logo and image on The Gereg album cover is of a snow leopard. In Mongolia, the snow leopard is very crucial to Mongol Tribes, worship Tengri (Heaven), Moon and Sun and embodies the image of the Snow Leopard. The singular horn represents the band's uniqueness, there is only one The HU.