Thursday, September 30, 2010

Listen to the Music of the Traffic in the City

“The song written by an Englishman about an American city whose promise of togetherness really yields loneliness sung by a white Parisian woman everyone thought was black.”

~ From “Pop Music: Songs that Cross Borders,” Radiolab, April 21, 2008

When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go - downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know - downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?

The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things'll be great when you're
Downtown - no finer place, for sure
Downtown - everything's waiting for you

Don't hang around and let your problems surround you
There are movie shows - downtown
Maybe you know some little places to go to
Where they never close - downtown
Just listen to the rhythm of a gentle bossa nova
You'll be dancing with him too before the night is over
Happy again

The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, where all the lights are bright
Downtown - waiting for you tonight
Downtown - you're gonna be all right now

[Instrumental break]

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you
Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to
Guide them along

So maybe I'll see you there
We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares
So go downtown, things'll be great when you're
Downtown - don't wait a minute for
Downtown - everything's waiting for you

Downtown, downtown, downtown, downtown ...

*     *     *     *     *

Listen to the whole fascinating Radiolab episode:

Awake My Soul (Réveille mon âme)

Mumford & Sons - The Banjolin Song / Awake my soul - A Take Away Show #105 from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

In these bodies we will live,
in these bodies we will die

Where you invest your love,
you invest your life

Awake my soul, awake my soul
Awake my soul

You were made to meet your maker


[Merci mille fois, Jonathan Carroll!]

Critical Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex

Excerpt from “Nine Ways Mindfulness Can Change Your Life,”  by Elisha Goldstein, Mental Help Net, September 28, 2010:

Through his experience in working with brain trauma, Daniel Siegel, M.D., author The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, and others found that the prefrontal cortex hosts nine critical functions that happen to associate with outcomes in mindfulness research and healthy attachment in children.

1. Response Flexibility — Here is a trait that lies at the cornerstone of Viktor Frankl ’s quote. “In between stimulus and response there’s a space…” and when we become aware of that space, there are choices. This is where we can break out of the auto-pilot of past conditionings and become aware of more options and be more flexible. We don’t have to pick up the bottle, or go back to the abusive partner, or walk around the block without noticing the flowers. Having this as a trait allows us to automatically recognize that there are choices and options.

2. Fear Modulation — While a little fear can be helpful (“I’m afraid of driving too close to the car in front of me”), more often it seeps into the intricacies of our lives and keeps us stuck in old patterns. For example, “I’m afraid to open up to him because I don’t want to be hurt.” I always give the analogy that if babies were afraid to learn how to walk because of the multitude of times they fell, they’d never learn to walk. Learning how to turn the volume down on our fear can help drop our anxieties over our imperfections and come back into a playful adventuring of daily life.

3. Body Regulation — In moments of overwhelm it’s easy for the heart to start beating faster, muscles to tense, the breath to become more rapid, getting the body ready for fight, flee or freeze. The activation of fighting or fleeing is a result of our sympathetic nervous system getting revved up. Stopping, resting or freezing is an activation of our parasympathetic nervous system. The ability to regulate our bodies means that we have a natural balance of these two nervous systems reliably telling us when to go and when to rest.

4. Attuned Communication — If a stressful day is upon us, it’s likely that we’re primed to not attune to others around us. At work, this leads to miscommunications and frustration, at home this leads to thoughts of not being cared about and distance in a relationship. Being able to naturally feel the internal state of another persona and reflect that back to them breeds security and feeling connected. The man on his deathbed said, “It’s about who you love and how you love them, and the rest of it never mattered.” You don’t get that experience in life without being able to attune to others.

5. Emotional Resiliency — It’s easy to get swept up on auto-pilot, being taken for a ride and not knowing how we suddenly ended up depressed, anxious or with a hot temper tantrum. Have the ability to be emotionally resilient means being better able to monitor our mood and lifting ourselves up when we’re down and down when we’re too up. This doesn’t mean living a neutral existence, just a more balanced one. We still experience the myriad of emotions that are out there, they just less often take us for rides into unhealthy emotional spirals.

6. Improved Insight — People often ask, “Do you think it’s important to look at what happened to me in the past or is all that matters in the here and now?” My response is always, “All your experiences of the past make up who you are today. So your past lives in the present. In order to find true self-acceptance we have to understand where our reactivity comes from and then turn to it with a sense of compassion and caring.” We can also intentionally pay attention to the future as we do with any of our aspirations. Through insight we get to know and befriend our auto-pilot so we can work in concert rather than in conflict.

7. EmpathyEmpathy allows us to connect and feel love for others. We are putting ourselves in their shoes and being able to discern where they are coming from, what they are thinking and feeling. The way we’re defining empathy here is also with a lens of kindness and compassion and with an eye on the greater good. 

8. Morality — This is defined as having your eye on the greater good in concert with your actions. Moral thoughts alone are not enough to cultivate morality, we need to be walking the talk.

9. Reliable Intuition — One of the follies of western culture at this point is the Descartian split of thinking and feeling. An overemphasis on the intellect without an appreciation for the wisdom of the body. After all, we now know that we have neural networks in our hearts and intestines. Reliable intuition is a reliable auto-pilot. We may not be aware in the moment of the underlying reasoning, we just get a sense for something. It is cultivated when we’re able to connect with the sensory world of the body that may tune us in to sensing when something or someone is safe or unsafe. Without experience and practice this intuition is more likely to be less reliable breeding misperceptions and unhealthy actions influenced by mood or prior trauma.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This is the Time

Two of six excellent letters of advice to new college students from “Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend,” New York Times, September 25, 2010:
College is your chance to see what you’ve been missing, both in the outside world and within yourself. Use this time to explore as much as you can.
Take classes in many different subjects before picking your major. Try lots of different clubs and activities. Make friends with people who grew up much poorer than you, and others much richer. Date someone of a different race or religion. (And no, hooking up at a party doesn’t count.) Spend a semester abroad or save up and go backpacking in Europe or Asia.
Somewhere in your childhood is a gaping hole. Fill this hole. Don’t know what classical music is all about? That’s bad. Don’t know who Lady Gaga is? That’s worse. If you were raised in a protected cocoon, this is the time to experience the world beyond.
College is also a chance to learn new things about yourself. Never been much of a leader? Try forming a club or a band.
The best things I did in college all involved explorations like this. I was originally a theater major but by branching out and taking a math class I discovered I actually liked math, and I enjoyed hanging out with technical people.
By dabbling in leadership — I ran the math club and directed a musical — I learned how to formulate a vision and persuade people to join me in bringing it to life. Now I’m planning to become an entrepreneur after graduate school. It may seem crazy, but it was running a dinky club that set me on the path to seeing myself as someone who could run a business.
Try lots of things in college. You never know what’s going to stick.
— TIM NOVIKOFF, Ph.D. student in applied mathematics at Cornell

*     *     *     *     *
Devices have become security blankets. Take the time to wean yourself.
Start by scheduling a few Internet-free hours each day, with your phone turned off. It’s the only way you’ll be able to read anything seriously, whether it’s Plato or Derrida on Plato. (And remember, you’ll get more out of reading Derrida on Plato if you read Plato first.) This will also have the benefit of making you harder to reach, and thus more mysterious and fascinating to new friends and acquaintances.
When you leave your room for class, leave the laptop behind. In a lecture, you’ll only waste your time and your parents’ money, disrespect your professor and annoy whoever is trying to pay attention around you by spending the whole hour on Facebook.
You don’t need a computer to take notes — good note-taking is not transcribing. All that clack, clack, clacking ... you’re a student, not a court reporter. And in seminar or discussion sections, get used to being around a table with a dozen other humans, a few books and your ideas. After all, you have the rest of your life to hide behind a screen during meetings.
— CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD, Ph.D. student in English and American literature at Columbia

There is a Boundary to Looking

Full moon rise over Woody Mountain.

photo by Pez Owen

by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

The road from intensity to greatness
passes through sacrifice.         —Kassner

For a long time he attained it in looking.
Stars would fall to their knees
beneath his compelling vision.
Or as he looked on, kneeling,
his urgency's fragrance
tired out a god until
it smiled at him in its sleep.

Towers he would gaze at so
that they were terrified:
building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!
But how often the landscape,
overburdened by day,
came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.

Animals trusted him, stepped
into his open look, grazing,
and the imprisoned lions
stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;
birds, as it felt them, flew headlong
through it; and flowers, as enormous
as they are to children, gazed back
into it, on and on.

And the rumor that there was someone
who knew how to look,
stirred those less
visible creatures:
stirred the women.

Looking how long?
For how long now, deeply deprived,
beseeching in the depths of his glance?

When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home—
the hotel's distracted unnoticing bedroom
moody around him, and in the avoided mirror
once more the room, and later
from the tormenting bed
once more:
then in the air the voices
discussed, beyond comprehension,
his heart, which could still be felt;
debated what through the painfully buried body
could somehow be felt—his heart;
debated and passed their judgment:
that it did not have love.

(And denied him further communions.)

For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.

Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don't know them.
Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.

[Thanks, Ryan!]

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Manageable Tongue Twisters
by Jesse Eisenberg

Sally peddles fish exoskeletons down by the beach.

*     *     *     *     *

Fuzzy Wuzzy had been a bear.
But he was bald.
So, if this was the case,
He couldn't have been very fuzzy, right?

*     *     *     *     *

Elizabeth Botter paid money for margarine.
But the margarine
for which Elizabeth Botter paid was tart.
So Elizabeth Botter
paid money for some superior margarine,
and it made Elizabeth Botter's
once-tart mixture good.

*     *     *     *     *

I scream.
Then you join me.
Pretty soon we all find ourselves
Shouting praises for frozen custard.

More at McSweeney’s…

Monday, September 27, 2010

Forever is composed of Nows

EDaguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848.

by Emily Dickinson

Forever — is composed of Nows —
'Tis not a different time —
Except for Infiniteness —
And Latitude of Home —

From this — experienced Here —
Remove the Dates — to These —
Let Months dissolve in further Months —
And Years — exhale in Years —

Without Debate — or Pause —
Or Celebrated Days —
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Domini's —


Saturday, September 25, 2010

What You Love

Guilty of Dust
by Frank Bidart, from In the Western Night

up or down from the infinite C E N T E R
B R I M M I N G at the winking rim of time

the voice in my head said


then I saw the parade of my loves

those PERFORMERS comics actors singers

forgetful of my very self so often I
desired to die to myself to live in them

then my PARENTS my FRIENDS the drained
SPECTRES once filled with my baffled infatuations

love and guilt and fury and
sweetness for whom

nail spirit yearning to the earth
then the voice in my head said




Autumn Approaching

The unspoiled colors of a late summer night,
The wind howling through the lofty pines—
The feel of the autumn approaching;
The swaying bamboos keep resonating,
And shedding tears of dew at dawn;
Only those who exert themselves fully
Will attain the Way,
But even if you abandon all for the ancient path of meditation,
You can never forget the meaning of sadness.

~ Zen Master Dōgen, Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace, translated by Steven Heine

How My Son Ruined My Life

Selma Baraz reveals how her son, James Baraz’s Awakening Joy course has ruined her life.

No Real Distance

by Gary Jackson

Every year, my mother reminds me
to place flowers on my sister’s grave.

    On a Thursday, I buy red
    and yellow carnations
    and baby’s breath.  I drive alone.
    The oak that grows nearby
    has branches low enough to bear
    the graves’ shadows.

    I do this
for all of us. My sister buried in Topeka.
My mother who left for Dallas. The boy
I used to be who still clings     to the years between.

I swore long ago I would never come back.
My mother does not swear,
but bears the same memories that lie beneath

Kansan green, waiting to break open
like rain on concrete.  So I become
her emissary. I shoulder her burden.

I drudge down familiar streets, careful
to avoid high school crushes,
teachers, bullies, cousins who never made it out
of the state they were born in.

    By the time I’ve pulled onto 21st,
    the black iron gates behind,
    I think of how there is no real distance

    between anything, how Kansas
is always a breath
away. It’s not the grave,
but the memory that pulls.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Mind Mistakes the Talking for the Doing

I agree with this short talk. Identifying with success is much easier than cultivating the conditions for making it possible. I like to tell people that when they begin to practice mindfulness meditation, it is a good idea to keep it to yourself until the habit is established. It’s similar to waiting to tell your friends and family about a pregnancy until after the first trimester. In fact, the length of a trimester is a great milestone when it comes to consistent meditation practice. Ninety days of consistent practice (as you define it up front) is a great place to start. Wait to tell your people that you’ve been practicing for three months instead of letting them know you are planning to try. The same advice applies to any skill development or regimen.

“Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen. Any time you have a goal, there are some steps that need to be done, some work that needs to be done in order to achieve it. Ideally, you should not be satisfied until you had actually done the work. But when you tell someone your goal, and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that it's called a social reality. The mind is kind of tricked into feeling that it's already done. And then, because you've felt that satisfaction, you're less motivated to do the actual hard work necessary. So this goes against the conventional wisdom that we should tell our friends our goals.”

~ Derek Sivers

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Exercising Our Attention Potential

From “The Focused Life,” by Winifred Gallagher, from her book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life:

rapt Abundant research shows that most of the rich and famous, brainy and beautiful are little or no happier than individuals of ordinary means and gifts, because no matter who you are, your joie de vivre mostly derives from paying attention to someone or something that interests you. Even in the hell of the Nazi death camps, many inmates avoided depression because they took charge of and concentrated on the one thing that was left to them: their inner experience. The rates of psychological problems as well as mortality among people in extreme situations such as shipwrecks and plane crashes in remote areas are surprisingly low—often lower than in normal settings. Vicissitudes notwithstanding, these people are not sitting around brooding about the past or killing time by channel surfing but are living the focused life.

It’s not a coincidence that the term distracted once referred not just to a loss or dilution of attention but also to confusion, mental imbalance, and even madness. It’s all too easy to spend much of your life in such an unfocused, mixed-up condition, rushing toward the chimera of a better time and place to tune in and, well, be alive. It’s the fashion to blame the Internet and computers, cell phones and cable TV for this diffused, fragmented state of mind, but our seductive machines are not at fault. The real problem is that we don’t appreciate our own  ability to use attention to select and create truly satisfying experience. Instead of exercising this potential, we too often take the lazy way out, settle for less, and squander our mental money and precious time on whatever captures our awareness willy-nilly, no matter how disappointing the consequences.

Where the quality of your life is concerned, focus is not everything, but it is a great deal. The question is: If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare puts it, where do you shine the spotlight of your attention?

It Turns to Reveal Its Other Face

Snippets of conversation from “A Wild Love for the World,” Being, September 16, 2010:

Krista Tippett: You really work with people to hold on to grief, to take their grief seriously, right?

Joanna Macy: Or not to hold on to it so much as to not be afraid of it because that grief, if you are afraid of it and pave it over, clamp down, you shut down. And the kind of apathy and closed-down denial, our difficulty in looking at what we're doing to our world stems not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as it stems from fear of pain. That was a big learning for me as I was organizing around nuclear power and around at the time of Three Mile Island catastrophe and around Chernobyl.

Then as I saw it, it relates to everything. It relates to what's in our food and it relates to the clear-cuts of our forests. It relates to the contamination of our rivers and oceans. So that became actually perhaps the most pivotal point in, I don't know, the landscape of my life, that dance with despair, to see how we are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or even fear and that, if we can be fearless, to be with our pain, it turns. It doesn't stay static. It only doesn't change if we refuse to look at it. But when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.

Krista Tippett: I just want to kind of underline the connection that you repeatedly make that I think might be counterintuitive. You know, you talk about spirituality and you are also always equally talking about, you know, these are some phrases from your writing that echo things you said. Your wild love for the world or even an erotic connection with the world, that those two things go together for you.

Joanna Macy: Yeah. That's right. World is lover, world is self and that it's OK for our hearts to be broken over the world. What else is a heart for? There's a great intelligence there. We've been treating the earth as if it were a supply house and a sewer. We've been grabbing, extracting resources from it for our cars and our hair dryers and our bombs and we've been pouring the waste into it until it's overflowing, but our earth is not a supply house and a sewer. It is our larger body. We breathe it. We taste it. We are it and it is time now that we venerate that incredible flowering of life that takes every aspect of our physicality.

So when I — I'm looking at my hand right now as we talk. It's got a lot of wrinkles because I'm 81 years old, but it's linked to hands like this back through the ages. This hand is directly linked to hands that learned to reach and grasp and climb and push up on dry land and weave reeds into baskets, and it has a fantastic history. Every particle and every atom in this hand goes back to the beginning of space-time. We're part of that story.

Read or listen to the whole conversation here…

See also: Hands

Monday, September 20, 2010

Put It to the Back of Your Mind

Philip Selway - By Some Miracle from David Altobelli on Vimeo.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What do you want to be?

Calvinosaurus, from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

by Bruce Holland Rogers, from The Sun Magazine, July 2006

When he was very young, he waved his arms, gnashed the teeth of his massive jaws, and tromped around the house so that the dishes trembled in the china cabinet. “Oh, for goodness sake,” his mother said. “You are not a dinosaur! You are a human being!” Since he was not a dinosaur, he thought for a time that he might be a pirate. “Seriously,” his father said at some point, “what do you want to be?” A fireman, then. Or a policeman. Or a soldier. Some kind of hero.

But in high school they gave him tests and told him he was very good with numbers. Perhaps he would like to be a math teacher? That was respectable. Or a tax accountant? He could make a lot of money doing that. It seemed a good idea to make money, what with falling in love and thinking about raising a family. So he was a tax accountant, even though he sometimes regretted that it made him, well, small. And he felt even smaller when he was no longer a tax accountant, but a retired tax accountant. Still worse, a retired tax accountant who forgot things. He forgot to take the garbage to the curb, forgot to take his pill, forgot to turn his hearing aid back on. Every day it seemed he had forgotten more things, important things, like which of his children lived in San Francisco and which of his children were married or divorced.

Then one day when he was out for a walk by the lake, he forgot what his mother had told him. He forgot that he was not a dinosaur. He stood blinking his dinosaur eyes in the bright sunlight, feeling the familiar warmth on his dinosaur skin, watching dragonflies flitting among the horsetails at the water’s edge.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


“The paths of air traffic over North America visualized in color and form.”

From Aaron Koblin 


[Thanks, Kit!]

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thinking in Feelings Instead of Words

Crab Apple Tree, by Susan Lirakis

Excerpts from “Quiet, Please: Gordon Hempton on the Search for Silence in a Noisy World,” by Leslie Goodman, The Sun Magazine, September 2010:

Leslie Goodman: You’ve written that, before entering nature, you go through a process to clear your mind and make it more receptive to silence. You might spend a night in the forest so that, by morning, your ears will be “relaxed” enough and your mind clear enough to hear the river valley “singing.” Are most of us oblivious to the sounds of nature because we’re constantly bombarded with our own mental chatter?

Gordon Hempton: Our mental condition reflects our external environment. Most of us live in cities, which are noisy, chaotic places. As a result we tend to have a lot of mental chatter, not all of it coherent. When you go to a naturally quiet place, you’ll notice first how physically loud you are — voice, footsteps, food wrappers, Velcro, zippers — but then you’ll notice internal noise as well. After a day or a week you’ll experience an internal shift: your to-do list will fall away, your body will find its rhythm, your ears will attune themselves to your new surroundings, and your mental chatter will quiet. You will recognize unnecessary thoughts as just that — unnecessary — and become acquainted with the place you’re in rather than staying inside your head.

Goodman: You blame “mental chatter” on modern life, but people have been trying to escape their thoughts for centuries.

Hempton: Some people, yes. It’s related to the pace of life, which has not always been as fast as it is now. Go to a quiet place in nature, and after a few hours you will notice that your thoughts have slowed; you are no longer thinking in words but in feelings. The mind is capable of taking in enormous amounts of information when we let go of our mental filtering system and open ourselves to pure perception.

Read the rest of this interview…

Let Everything Happen, Just Keep Going

Two poems from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours translated by Joanna Macy, from “A Wild Love for the World,” Being, September 16, 2010":

Onto a Vast Plain

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees fless. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees' blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Measuring Non-Standard Forms of Intelligence

UCLA professor Mike Rose from “The Meaning of Intelligence,” a conversation with Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, August 26, 2010:

ruler It's like we have a ruler that is very precise for half of its width or length. Right? I'm interested in those folks that don't do well on those kinds of tests, that don't do well on the standard IQ test or don't do so well on the SAT test, let's say. What I want to know is what they know that's not being reflected in that test.

Or another angle on it is, I want to find out more about what didn't happen in their educations that made them do poorly on that test or in their life experience.

So let's take the IQ test…If someone does well on an IQ test, that certainly tells us something, right? They've got some smarts; there's no doubt about it.

But think of the folks who might not do so well on those kinds of tests because they didn't have a lot of formal schooling — and everybody admits that there's a direct correlation between amount of formal schooling and how well you do on tests like that. There's an intimate connection between those two things. So they didn't have a lot of formal schooling. They haven't had a lot of experience taking those kinds of tests.

They also don't invest as much in them. Those of us who have been through a ton of schooling, we've been socialized to know that when one of those things appears in front of us, we better try our damnedest to do well on it.

So there's all kinds of reasons through which we can explain somebody not doing so well on a test like that, reasons other than some intellectual deficiency. So then I say I'm interested in, well, gee, what happens when we go out into the world  with this person and we watch them work, let's say, or we watch them raise kids, or we watch them figure out how to make their way through the day or some complicated social relationships. What emerges that bespeaks of intelligence? What goes on right under our noses that bespeaks of some kind of smarts?

So the plumber who reaches up inside of the wall of an old building where he cannot see and he can only feel, and through feeling around the structures in there, feeling the rust, feeling moisture if there's any, feeling the way the thing is structured, he's visualizing what's back there that he can't see and then bringing a knowledge base to bear on trying to figure out what the problem may be. Think of what a complex set of mental operations are involved in that.

Or the hairstylist who is presented with someone who comes in and they have a botched dye job, let's say. And the stylist — and this woman said this to me when I was watching her work — she said, "The first thing I asked myself was what was that previous stylist trying to accomplish?" So what an interesting question to ask.

And what an interesting problem-solving road that takes her down. Now those kinds of things are not going to be picked up on an IQ instrument. They're not structured to get to that stuff. But those are certainly manifestations of intelligence.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Who is Speaking

by W.S. Merwin, from The Pupil

as we say
meaning it literally
and you do

hear it when
we speak
for the voice addressing you
is your own

though we know now
that the you
we are speaking to
is not the person
we imagine
yet we go on telling you

day after day of the person
we imagine
ourselves to be

forgetting as we tell you
learning even from joy
but forgetting
and you hear

who is speaking
you hear it all
though you do not listen

Other People's Voices


Excerpts from "Voices in Your Head," Radiolab Blog, September 7, 2010:

Think about a small child sitting down solving a puzzle. If you watch any kid with their parent, anywhere in the world doing this kind of thing, you'll see them thinking together.

According to Lev Vygotsky, this is the beginning of thinking, this kind of dialogue. And at this point, it's completely external. It's all happening in that space between the child and her mother. And only over time does it become internalized.

And how that happens, Vygotsky thought, is as the child gets older, she'll start to take on the dialogue herself. She'll start to talk to herself. This is the stage we call private speech. We've all seen kids do this, right? Where they narrate every single thing they're doing. Put the ball in the box. Take the ball out of the box.

Now, what then happens in a few years further down the line, these kids who are narrating everything they're doing, then go to school and the teachers tell them, "Shh! Don't talk out loud." So they kind of get the message that they need to  start doing this internally.

So they start to whisper to themselves out loud. And then eventually, they whisper to themselves silently. Because the words are now in their head. And that's, according to Vygotsky's theory, is thinking.

The logic of it is that all our thinking is full of other people's voices.

*     *     *     *     *

Andrew Mas

Andrew Mason

Clearly, for a lot of people, hearing voices involves some psychiatric issues, which sometimes can be serious. Really serious. But here's the weird thing: the experience of hearing somebody else's voice in your own head is actually way more common than you would think. Surveys have been done about this and the number seems to be between five and ten percent of normal, healthy people have that experience or have had it at one time. Which brings us back to this Vygotsky situation.

What might be happening in those cases, at least if you ask Charles Fernyhough, is a kind of misattribution of your own inner voice. Those voices in your head which are you get mistaken to be from someone else.

A nice, simple, elegant demonstration of this is that you take some people who are hearing voices—people, in this case, with the diagnosis of schizophrenia—and you sit them down at a microphone with some headphones on. You show them some words on a screen and their task is to repeat the words—to read the words out loud.

The trick is, the researchers have rigged it to that the voice in their headphones—their voice—actually gets lowered just a little bit right before they hear it.

What the experimenters found is that most people—most non-voice-hearing people—when they were presented with the sound of their own voice lowered and then asked, "Is this you or is it a stranger or are you not sure?" the voice hearers made considerably more mistakes. Not only that, but when they heard their voices lowered, they would very often say, "That voice is coming from a stranger. That's not me. That's not myself. That didn't from me." Now, of course, that is a potentially frightening experience.

But not always. Let's just imagine that Vygotsky was right, that the internal voice of our thoughts is actually a blend of all of those external voices from our childhood: our mom, our dad, our sisters, brothers, whatever. They're all in there in some way. And that can actually be a comfort.

Dangling on the Brink of Extinction

"Shot high above the streets of New York, UP THERE reveals they dying art of large-scale hand painted advertising and the untold story of the painters struggling to keep it alive."

UP THERE from Jon on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Book with Wings, Anselm KieferA few of my favorite terms and their definitions from Douglas Coupland’s “A Dictionary of the Near Future,” New York Times, September 12, 2010:

DENARRATION The process whereby one’s life stops feeling like a story.

DESELFING Willingly diluting one’s sense of self and ego by plastering the Internet with as much information as possible. (See also Omniscience Fatigue; Undeselfing)

FRANKENTIME What time feels like when you realize that most of your life is spent working with and around a computer and the Internet.

INSTANT REINCARNATION The fact that most adults, no matter how great their life is, wish for radical change in their life. The urge to reincarnate while still alive is near universal.

INTERNAL VOICE BLINDNESS The near universal inability of people to articulate the tone and personality of the voice that forms their interior monologue.

INTERRUPTION-DRIVEN MEMORY We remember only red traffic lights, never the green ones. The green ones keep us in the flow, the red ones interrupt and annoy us.

INTRAFFINITAL MELANCHOLY VS. EXTRAFFINITAL MELANCHOLY Which is lonelier: to be single and lonely, or to be lonely within a dead relationship?

ME GOGGLES The inability to accurately perceive oneself as others do.

OMNISCIENCE FATIGUE The burnout that comes with being able to know the answer to almost anything online.

ROSENWALD’S THEOREM The belief that all the wrong people have self-esteem.

SITUATIONAL DISINHIBITION Social contrivances within which one is allowed to become disinhibited, that is, moments of culturally approved disinhibition: when speaking with fortunetellers, to dogs and other pets, to strangers and bartenders in bars, or with Ouija boards.

STANDARD DEVIATION Feeling unique is no indication of uniqueness, and yet it is the feeling of uniqueness that convinces us we have souls.

STAR SHOCK The disproportionate way that meeting celebrities feels slightly like being told a piece of life-changing news.

UNDESELFING The attempt, usually frantic and futile, to reverse the deselfing process.

ZOOSOMNIAL BLURRING The notion that animals probably don’t see much difference between dreaming and being awake.

Read the complete list…

Don’t Look to Be Saved

Volkszählung (Census), by Anselm Kiefer, 1991“The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They're Caesar's praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, 'Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.' Most of us can't rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven't time, money or that many friends. The things you're looking for…are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”

~ From Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Head is an Overstated Organ

Robert Patterson, who has Alzheimer's disease, speaks with his wife, Karen, from StoryCorps:

Robert and Karen Patterson Robert: I feel like I’m the same person, but I know I’m kind of a big load to deal with.

Karen: You know how we talk sometimes about who we really are. What is our essence? Memories are not who you are.

Robert: Well, I think one thing I experience with Alzheimer's is I live in the moment ‘cause I can’t remember what happened yesterday—I can’t remember what happened ten minutes ago, but I’m much more present, I think.

Karen: Do you think about the future?

Robert: I know that there’s probably a bad time that comes in the future. This disease gets more wicked, but I don’t obsess on it. I do a nice job of ignoring it.

Karen: With this disease, you moved from somebody that lived in their head a lot to somebody who lived in their heart.

Robert: The head is an overstated organ; the heart is where all the action is. I remember things that occur in my heart much better than things in my head: having fun with the kids, laughing, our new grandchild.”

Karen: Speaking of this new grandchild, is there something you’d like him to know?

Robert: I would like him to know that I fell in love with him the first time I saw him in the hospital. And every time I see that sweet little face, it just makes me feel good. I’m looking forward to hanging with him and teaching him things that I think are really important. That’s my job for the rest of my life.

Karen: I don’t know if you even remember this, but once we were listening to a book on tape. It talked about the greatest thing you could do if you loved somebody, that you would be the one that was left. And that you would be the one that could care for your lover.

You are not alone. And I’m honored that I’m the one that can care for you. I always will.

Robert: You always have. Thank you.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

To Empathize is to Civilize

“In this talk from RSA Animate, bestselling author Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways it has shaped human development and society.”

~ TED Talks | Best of the Web

On a Beautiful September Day

Making Sense of Life,” from September 11: Portraits of Grief:

Gates to the Bronx Zoo The Friday before the World Trade Center attack, John Patrick Gallagher, an electricity trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, played hooky from work so he could treat his wife, Francine, and 2- month-old son, James Jordan, to a day at the Bronx Zoo.

"He was so proud of his big boy," recalled Mrs. Gallagher. Later that evening, at dinner with his brother and friends, he told them about the jaunt. "Isn't that what dads are supposed to do with their families on a beautiful September day?" he asked.

Mr. Gallagher, 31, stood 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed around 270 pounds, but he had an extraordinary grace about him, his wife said. He never took anything for granted, perhaps because he lost his mother when he was 1 and his father six years later. He was born in the Bronx but he and his wife loved to travel. In 1999, Mr. Gallagher asked his future wife to marry him on a trip to Ireland. "He made my life make sense," Mrs. Gallagher said. "It's hard to make sense of things now that he's gone."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Look More Closely

Water drop, Felice Frankel

“We glance, and turn away without noticing. We don’t ever really see, and then we forget what we have seen. Water drips from faucets; candles burn; yeast makes bread rise; a tiny, living mouse — pursuing its tiny murine intentions — runs across a floor that was once a living tree; the sun consumes itself.

We don’t notice.

Look more closely, and everyday events bloom into a reality so transfixingly marvelous that you can’t look away. Life becomes something we don’t understand that happens in ordinary matter. Ordinary matter happens somehow when atoms get together. Atoms build themselves from electrons and nuclei, following rules that flummox intuition. Electrons and nuclei are strange avatars of yet stranger fish swimming in a darker sea.
But whatever it all is — this amazing assembly we so flippantly nickname ‘reality’ — is all there is, and all we are.”

~ Georges Whitesides, from No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale 


"I'm sort of a visual ambassador in the sense that I'm using a language, that is the pictorial language, to get people to be less intimidated about what is going on in the laboratories. Photographing science is definitely about showing evidence, but the photography itself, the process is sort of a metaphor for the discovery in science. Most of this stuff, you come to the assignment and you think you have a way you're going to do it, and then you don't do it that way. You discover another way to do it. And in the process you see things. Isn't that fun?"

~ Felice Frankel, on her method for capturing the images that appear in the book, No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale, which she co-wrote with Harvard chemist George Whitesides. (Studio 360, 09/10/2010).

See also: Slideshows from 2020 Science and Science Friday

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Torah and the Golden Rule

From The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong:

The Great Transformation on Google Books …the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees, who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law. Perhaps the greatest of the Pharisees was Rabbi Hillel (c. 80 BCE-30 CE), who migrated to Palestine from Babylonia. In his view, the essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but it’s spirit, which he summed up in the Golden Rule. In a famous Talmudic story, it was said that one day a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied simply: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.”

*     *     *     *     *

From “Modern Lessons From Hillel,” All Things Considered, September 7, 2010 :

“Not much is known about the life of the rabbi and Talmudic scholar Hillel, who lived 2,000 years ago, but his teachings have shaped Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's forthcoming book Hillel: If Not Now, When? argues that Hillel has as much to teach the 21 Century as he did his own.”

Making Waves

“Making architecture is like writing a novel; making a work of art is like a poem.”

~ Maya Lin, from “Maya Lin’s ‘Wave Field’,” video produced by Erik Olsen & Carol Kino, New York Times, November 2008 

Groundswell,” 1993. Forty-three tons of recycled, shattered automobile safety glass. Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus

"The Wave Field," 1995. Shaped earth; 100 x 100 feet. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Blue Lake Pass,” 2006, Duraflake particleboard, 20 blocks, 36 x 36 in. each (68 x 210 x 269 in. overall)

Storm King Wavefield,” 2008. Earth and grass; 240,000 square feet (11-acre site)


Video still from Maya Lin’s tribute to vanishing species titled What is Missing?

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Screen is Always There

Canton Place, Ohio (1980), Hiroshi SugimotoExcerpt from Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, by Shunryu Suzuki:

Our everyday life is like a movie playing on the wide screen. Most people are interested in the picture on the screen without realizing there is a screen. When the movie stops and you don't see anything anymore, you think, "I must come again tomorrow evening. I will come back and see another show." When you are just interested in the movie on the screen and it ends, then you expect another show tomorrow, or maybe you are discouraged because there is nothing good on right now. You don't realize the screen is always there.

But when you are practicing, you realize that your mind is like a screen. If the screen is colorful—colorful enough to attract people—then it will not serve its purpose. So to have a screen which is not colorful—to have a pure, plain white screen—is the most important point. But most people are not interested in the pure white screen.

I think it is good to be excited by seeing a movie. To some extent you can enjoy the movie because you know that it is a movie. Even though you have no idea of the screen, still your interest is based on an understanding that this is a movie with a screen and there is a projector or something artificial. So you can enjoy it. That is how we enjoy our life. If you have no idea of the screen or the projector, perhaps you cannot see it as a movie.

Zazen practice is necessary to know the kind of screen you have and to enjoy our life as you enjoy movies in the theater. You are not afraid of the screen. You do not have any particular feeling for the screen, which is just a white screen. So you are not afraid of your life at all. You enjoy something you are afraid of. You enjoy something that makes you angry or that makes you cry, and you enjoy the crying and the anger too.

If you have no idea of the screen, then you will be afraid of enlightenment. "What is it? Oh, my!" [laughter] If someone attains enlightenment, you may ask him about the experience, you may say,"Oh, no! That is not for me." But it is just a movie. Something for you to enjoy. And if you want to enjoy the movie, you should know that it is the combination of film and light and white screen,and that the most important thing is the plain white screen.

The white screen is not something that you can actually attain; it is something you always have. The reason you don't feel you have it is because your mind is too busy to realize it. Once in a while you should stop all your activities and [notice your] screen. That is zazen. That is the foundation of our everyday life and our meditation practice.

See also: A Shining Screen

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Echo of Everything


“Sea of Japan” (1996) by Hiroshi Sugimoto

by W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees

Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence

Digitally Archiving David

Scanning David

From The Digital Michelangelo Project:

“Recent improvements in laser rangefinder technology, together with algorithms developed at Stanford for combining multiple range and color images, allow us to reliably and accurately digitize the external shape and surface characteristics of many physical objects. Examples include machine parts, cultural artifacts, and design models for the manufacturing, moviemaking, and video game industries.

As an application of this technology, a team of 30 faculty, staff, and students from Stanford University and the University of Washington spent the 1998-99 academic year in Italy scanning the sculptures and architecture of Michelangelo. As a side project, we also scanned 1,163 fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae, a giant marble map of ancient Rome…Our goal is to produce a set of 3D computer models - one for each statue, architectural setting, and map fragment we scanned - and to make these models available to scholars worldwide.”

Scanning David “The motivations behind this project are to advance the technology of 3D scanning, to place this technology in the service of the humanities, and to create a long-term digital archive of some important cultural artifacts.”

“On the left is a photograph of Michelangelo's David. On the right is a computer rendering made from a geometric model. Constructed in December, 1999 at a resolution of 1.0 mm, the model is watertight and contains 4 million polygons. For a brief overview of the steps required to build this model, click here.”

Laser scan of the David

Blinded by Familiarity

Excerpt from “Really Looking,” by Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times Editorial: The Rural Life, September 2, 2010:

I look out across the pasture as dusk begins and see a shining galaxy of airborne bugs. How would it be, I wonder, to have an awareness of the actual number of insects on this farm?

One Queen at a Time I ask myself a version of that question every day: “Have you ever really looked at ...?” You can fill in the blank yourself. But every day I feel blinded by familiarity. I open the hive, which is filled with honey, and the particularity of the honeybees, even their community, somehow escapes me, if only because I’ve been living with honeybees a good part of my life. I remember the phrase, “keep your eyes peeled,” and maybe that’s what I need, a good peeling.

Again and again, I find myself trying to really look at what I’m seeing. It happened the other afternoon, high on a nearby mountain. A dragonfly had settled on the denuded tip of a pine bough. It clung, still as only a dragonfly can be. Then it flicked upward and caught a midge and settled on the bough again, adjusting precisely into the wind. I see the dragonflies quivering through the insect clouds above my pasture, too. I always notice that there’s no such thing as really looking.

What I want to be seeing is invisible anyway: the prehistoric depth of time embodied in the form of those dragonflies, the pressure of life itself, the web of relations that bind us all together. I find myself trying to witness the moment when the accident of life becomes a continued purpose. But this is a small farm, and, being human, I keep coming up against the limits of what a human can see.

Read the entire essay…

[Thanks, Kit!]

Friday, September 03, 2010

Naturally Metacognitive


See also:

The Fool in Me

“I must learn to love the fool in me, the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes to many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and break promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my fool.”

~ Theodore Isaac Rubin


[Thanks, JC!]

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Attention Fitness

Excerpt from “How to Focus,” by Clay Johnson,

Many people want the ability to focus more and feel like they’re losing the ability to focus on a particular task for long periods of time. We feel like we’re losing that ability. Getting Things Done and all the other books out there tend to give you some rituals to cope with the problem— but only if you could stick to them. Most of us, just a few weeks after reading that book, sit next to filing cabinets (virtual or otherwise) and go about our merry way.

That’s because we’re focused on the wrong thing. To get a longer attention span — even a span long enough to read this article — don’t worry about managing the information. Worry about managing your attention. Paying attention, for long periods of time, is a form of endurance athleticism. Like running a marathon, it requires practice and training to get the most out of it. It is as much Twitter’s fault that you have a short attention span as it is your closet’s fault it doesn’t have any running shoes in it. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention fitness.

Neuroplasticity is how your brain changes its organization over time to deal with new experiences. It involves physical changes inside of the brain based on the particular tasks the brain is asked to complete. It’s why the hippocampus of a seasoned taxi driver in London is larger than average, and how a meditating monk grows grey matter. Your brain isn’t a mythological deity but a physical part of your body that needs to be taken care of just like the rest of your body. And your body responds to two things really well — diet and exercise. Let’s presume your brain, being a part of the body, also does.

Things like Inbox Zero or cutting down on meetings may be handy tricks, but they don’t take neuroplasticity into account. The bet there is that you have a finite amount of attention to spend, and that attention range isn’t changeable. That stuff is handy for making the best use of your limited attention span, but it’s not going to improve your attention span. It’s not going to stop your brain from being easily distracted or unfocused if you’ve already trained it to be that way.

Read the entire essay …