Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

From Charles F. Durant’s Algae and Corallines of the Bay & Harbor of New York (1850), via Public Domain Review

A lovely essay from the Public Domain Review, on the 18th and 19th century fad of seaweed collection, touching on its countercultural and feminist connections, and some of the fascinating figures who became obsessed with the “useless” plants. Sasha Archibald captures the strange allure of seaweed collecting, seen by its advocates as a more refined alternative to the more obvious, less subtle pleasure of flower collecting. This passage on the hobby’s effect on air-balloon pioneer, pseudoscience debunker and generally fascinating character Charles Durant really struck me:

His research served only to remind him, again and again, how partial his knowledge. Algology is a concession, and a surrender too. Durant seems to bow his head before the “unfathomable abyss” of his topic, which proves “too wide, too deep, too vast for perfect exploration”. Seaweed chastened his ego, and abasement made space for love.

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

(I’m trying to get in the habit of distilling some of the key concepts from the books I read, instead of just letting them wash over me before moving onto the next. I’m pushing 40, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and the act of summarizing is still one of the best ways for me to internalize a lesson.)

In trying to pin down the traits that have helped humanity thrive over our 35,000 post-Ice Age years, Gaia Vince lists four key technologies: Fire, Language, Beauty and Time. Really, though, she’s listing four aspects of a single technology. While I never would have thought to connect them in this way, Vince makes a compelling case that those four ideas, broadly defined, are all ways of offloading the work of evolutionary adaptation to external energy sources:

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.

In this reading, fire takes on many roles that would otherwise have to be done by the body: cooking food is a sort of pre-digestion, making it easier for our stomachs to break down tough meats and vegetables; it wards off predators overnight, allowing for more rest; it alters landscapes, creating grasslands that are more favourable to the endurance hunting techniques humans favour and making things more difficult for the other predators we compete with. The list goes on, but the commonality is that instead of relying on the energy we’re able to create with our own bodies, we outsource those energy needs to transcend our physical limitations.

Of course, that consumptive outsourcing has gotten us into all kinds of trouble over the millenia, and is at the root of most of our current environmental and cultural issues. There’s no denying that it has let us accomplish far more than we ever could have with our bodies alone.

Vince’s list of technologies gets more abstract as it goes, which is appropriate given that abstraction is such a seemingly unique human trait. Language offloads the energy requirements of teaching, allows for complex thoughts, and seems to structure how we percieve the world to such an extent that multilingual people will give different answers to questions of preference or opinion depending what language they are speaking at the time. It also allows for a “cumulative culture,” where knowledge gained by one person and one generation can be built on by the next, which is the key to the exponential growth of our technological sophistication.

Beauty, in Vince’s telling, is a tool for binding us as cooperative societies, promoting trade, specialization, and community. Time is the most tenuous of the topics, allowing for a conception of a future that led to multi-generational mega-projects and monoliths, and eventually to the predictive systems of science. It also moved us out of touch with our own natural bodily cycles as we increasingly defined reality and dictated behaviour through more objective, external measurements of time.

Humanity isn’t particularly well adapted to most of the environments we inhabit—at least not physically. Instead, we have a “developing bath” of culture, environment, and genetics, all of which influence each other, and which allow us to adapt to new situations at a pace that genetic evolution alone could never manage. As Vince says,

Local knowledge is indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.

In her conclusion, Vince makes the argument that humanity is on the verge of transcending again, into a superorganism she calls Homo omnis, or Homni. Comparing humanity to a slime mold isn’t immediately flattering, but it’s an interesting thought; the mold is a collection of individual organisms that can, in times of stress, act as if it is one larger organism, capable of things that the individual units never could.

The book’s ending is a hopeful one, focusing on humanity’s collective triumphs while still nodding towards the (largely self-created) challenges we face. Homni seems a step too far for me, mostly because recent years have challenged my belief in our potential for collective action. But maybe that’s just me focusing too much on the short term, unable to pull back and see our deep history, or project into our deep future. I hope there’s at least some truth to it, that the pattern of transcending our limitations continues. Because Vince is right; our potential is tremendous.

Longreads: The Sounds of Silence

My first piece for Longreads was published this week, sharing five articles about listening to nature. The Reading List format is a pretty natural one for me—I’m much more comfortable sharing other people’s thoughts than passing off my own as in any way authoritative—and the process of writing it helped me to clarify some of my own thoughts on music, noise, and silence

It also led to a conversation with a friend about their own experience of listening to music, and how it can be a way to take us out of the present, “to go someplace that isn’t this, either to the past or the craving for something new.”

I think there’s definitely truth in that, but there’s a positive side to it, too. A while back, I started seeing a certain kind of active musical listening as essentially training wheels for being present in a moment. To really enjoy a song, you have to ride along with it and get lost in it, experiencing each note as it comes. In the last few years, I’ve been working on getting that same experience of a stretch of time without the music.

For a long time, though, I thought the training wheels were the bicycle. Music has been such an accessible way to get fully absorbed in the flow of time that I never thought to wonder if it was keeping me from experiencing something more. Now that I’ve made the connection, though, I’ve found one of the best ways to enjoy silence and contemplation is to imagine it as music without the music. It makes emotional and intuitive sense even if I can’t quite explain it in more depth.

In any case, go read the piece on Longreads, and enjoy some thoughtful writing by much wiser folks than me.

Kindle Clippings, Feb. 2022

Everything I highlighted on my Kindle over the last month. As always, presented without context and for the Instapaper excerpts, without attribution. Honestly, these posts are more for my own reference than anyone else’s interest, but hey—maybe something will catch your eye.


Instapaper: Sunday, Jan. 30th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 405-409 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 22:21:26

The environmental costs of crypto are very large, undoubtedly. But, even if there existed a magic wand whose waiving would make blockchain run on zero watts, crypto currencies would remain more of a problem than a solution – for reasons I explained above. In brief, within our present oligarchic, exploitative, irrational, and inhuman world system, the rise of crypto applications will only make our society more oligarchic, more exploitative, more irrational, and more inhuman. This is why, in opposing the crypto enthusiasts, I never even bother to mention their environmental repercussions.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 35 | location 528-529 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 23:11:17

The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 37 | location 555-557 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 23:14:11

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 37 | location 555-558 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 23:14:15

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.


A Tale Of Two Ecosystems: On Bandcamp, Spotify And The Wide-Open Future (npr.org)

  • Your Highlight at location 35-37 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:05:38

Spotify is focused on “capturing the share of time listeners spend elsewhere.” This is why Ek talks about “audio” generically, because it doesn’t matter specifically what those listeners are doing elsewhere, Ek just wants them doing it at Spotify instead.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 43 | location 654-655 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:19:41

The potential beauty of human life is constantly made ugly by man’s everrecurring song of retaliation.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 49 | location 742-745 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:30:12

undeniable sinfulness, but also its appalling blindness. And if American democracy gradually disintegrates, it will be due as much to a lack of insight as to a lack of commitment to right. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war and eventually transforms his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine, it will have resulted from downright badness and also from downright stupidity.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 49 | location 742-745 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:30:19

And if American democracy gradually disintegrates, it will be due as much to a lack of insight as to a lack of commitment to right. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war and eventually transforms his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine, it will have resulted from downright badness and also from downright stupidity.


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 3rd (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 170-171 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 22:25:58

When I open my doom machine now, I try, as best I can, to see past the abstraction. I try to remember that the internet is powered by real, live people. It’s a frightening thought. But also, maybe, a hopeful one.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 51 | location 775-777 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 22:49:22

Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 53 | location 804-806 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:26:25

We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God’s image is ineffably etched in his being. Then


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Note on page 53 | location 806 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:27:24

So what is the equivalent secular reasoning?


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 53 | location 804-806 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:27:32

We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God’s image is ineffably etched in his being.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 54 | location 825-827 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:30:04

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 55 | location 843-845 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:32:09

A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 60 | location 919-926 | Added on Sunday, 6 February 2022 22:20:35

This midnight in man’s external collective life is paralleled by midnight in his internal individual life. It is midnight within the psychological order. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Deep clouds of anxiety and depression are suspended in our mental skies. More people are emotionally disturbed today than at any other time of human history. The psychopathic wards of our hospitals are crowded, and the most popular psychologists today are the psychoanalysts. Bestsellers in psychology are books such as Man Against Himself, The Neurotic Personality of Our Times, and Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Bestsellers in religion are such books as Peace of Mind and Peace of Soul. The popular clergyman preaches soothing sermons on “How to Be Happy” and “How to Relax.” Some have been tempted to revise Jesus’ command to read, “Go ye into all the world, keep your blood pressure down, and, lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.”


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 73 | location 1108-1111 | Added on Monday, 7 February 2022 22:44:54

In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 77 | location 1166-1167 | Added on Monday, 7 February 2022 22:52:08

Your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 83 | location 1272-1273 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 22:47:39

First, whom the gods would destroy they must first make mad with power. Second, the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small. Third, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. Fourth, when it is dark enough you can see the stars.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 84 | location 1276-1278 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 22:49:05

We must be careful at this point not to engage in a superficial optimism or to conclude that the death of a particular evil means that all evil lies dead upon the seashore. All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 84 | location 1280-1281 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 22:49:36

But just as we must avoid a superficial optimism, we must also avoid a crippling pessimism. Even though all progress is precarious, within limits real social progress may be made.


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 68 | location 1040-1041 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 23:10:00

In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit cites the German philosopher Walter Benjamin: “To be lost is to be fully present.”


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 78 | location 1189-1191 | Added on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 20:48:16

Why do we so often break with the pattern of movement that landscape architects and city planners want us to take? They put up fences and hedges, put down gravel on the paths, and erect signs, but to no avail. People will always choose where they want to walk. We take shortcuts across areas where landscape planners don’t want us to walk; it is a quiet form of rebellion against uniformity and conformity.


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 83 | location 1266-1269 | Added on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 20:57:23

Walking is the only form of exercise that does not require you to actively decide to exercise but that is rather merely an extension of the life you are already living and the activities you are already doing every day. If you want to transform your walking into exercise, all you have to do is walk a bit more often and a little farther than you usually do.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 87 | location 1328-1329 | Added on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 21:39:42

The hopes of our childhood and the promises of our mature years are unfinished symphonies.


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 10th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 281-282 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 20:43:04

“The psychological premise of human manipulability,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common and learned opinion.”


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 10th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 433-437 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 21:10:59

Facebook is full of ugly memes and boring groups, ignorant arguments, sensational clickbait, products no one wants, and vestigial features no one cares about. And yet the people most alarmed about Facebook’s negative influence are those who complain the most about how bad a product Facebook is. The question is: Why do disinformation workers think they are the only ones who have noticed that Facebook stinks? Why should we suppose the rest of the world has been hypnotized by it? Why have we been so eager to accept Silicon Valley’s story about how easy we are to manipulate?


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 10th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 445-446 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 21:13:22

One reason to grant Silicon Valley’s assumptions about our mechanistic persuadability is that it prevents us from thinking too hard about the role we play in taking up and believing the things we want to believe.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 103 | location 1574-1578 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 21:40:14

The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cut-throat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. It can make men so I-centered that they no longer are Thou-centered. Are we not too prone to judge success by the index of our salaries and the size of the wheel base on our automobiles, and not by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity? Capitalism may lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the theoretical materialism taught by Communism.


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 105 | location 1605-1607 | Added on Friday, 11 February 2022 22:04:29

…saw the newly upgraded highway between the ancient beech trunks and I was overcome by a peculiar feeling. Here I stood with one foot in the past and one in the present. From a holloway to a highway in ten minutes. Vikings and financiers. One old path and one new. A thousand years’ time. Light-years of evolution.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 114 | location 1739-1741 | Added on Sunday, 13 February 2022 21:55:12

In these days of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty, is there any man who does not experience the depression and bewilderment of crippling fear, which, like a nagging hound of hell, pursues our every footstep?


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 116 | location 1772-1774 | Added on Sunday, 13 February 2022 21:59:42

Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but rather to harness and master it.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 170-173 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:47:16

Trees are the longest-living life form we know, and manifest their temporal and geographic histories within their very bodies. In both form and function, trees tell the stories of their individual past, which is intimately connected to the history of their microenvironments as well as that of the planet. This distinctive and intimate relation between trees and their temporal and geographic histories is what we call the ‘embodied history of trees’.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 273-277 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:56:55

In the humus-poor earth, the root, just as much as any other part of the tree, expresses its environment. The tree does not begin with the aspiration of becoming a very large oak and adapt only afterwards. Rather, from the very beginning the tree senses its context and emerges in dialogue with it. This unity or coherence in the tree’s response is possible only if the various parts of the tree emerge interdependently. The parts, in other words, cannot exist independently of one another or pre-exist the whole, but actively form and inform one another, such that the one cannot exist without the other.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 281-284 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:57:41

The consequences of this view challenge us to think carefully about the relation between organism and environment, and about the line we usually draw between life and nonlife. For if we begin to conceive of the environment as an essential component of the tree organism, then we must conclude that the physical environment is neither something external to the tree, nor something inert or dead, in opposition to the living character of the tree. Rather, we must begin to recognise that the processes we usually identify with life are also present in the relations between life and nonlife.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 303-307 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:59:05

After all, as mobile as we might think of ourselves, we are ultimately bound to the planet. In fact, it is the forgetting of our boundedness, of our dependence on healthy soil, clean water and air, forests, swamps and deserts, that has brought us to the suicidal situation in which we find ourselves. Remembering our boundedness, remembering our tree-like character, might serve an important step in transforming the way we think about ourselves, our place and our environmental future.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 333-335 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:06:45

At some point in my late 30s, I recognised the paradoxical source of this anxiety: that every single thing in life took much longer than I expected it to, except for life itself, which went much faster, and would be over before I knew where I was.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 360-3___ | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:09:53

Until fairly recently, I was not a person who had a lot of time for nature. I wished it well in all its dealings, and was glad to take its side in any quarrel with the forces arrayed against it, but my regard for it was essentially abstract, and I would just as soon have left it to its own devices.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 434-435 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:16:52

But it is an instructive kind of boredom, insofar as boredom is the raw and unmediated experience of time.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 604-605 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:36:01

A new generation of electronic artists, such as Japanese producer Yosi Horikawa, incorporate nature field recordings into their experimental grooves.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 647-648 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:39:53

There is something humbling, and exhilarating, about human unity with nature sounds; we are no longer would-be conquerors, but innately connected to the life around us.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 136 | location 2076-2076 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:42:34

How much of your modern life can be summarized in the words of your poet Thoreau: “Improved means to an unimproved end.”


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 142 | location 2171-2172 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:52:39

He who loves has discovered the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality; he who hates stands in immediate candidacy for nonbeing.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 29 | location 436-437 | Added on Thursday, 17 February 2022 22:50:02

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 53 | location 804-807 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 09:49:35

A recent study25 that looked at Darwin’s finches found that after a single drought had limited their available food to just a few hard seeds, those birds with unusually hard beaks were more likely to survive to pass on their genes. Of the next generation, only 15 percent of the group had normal beaks. The change occurred within one year and its effects were seen for 15.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 55 | location 838-841 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 10:04:32

Raw fads are not new—the Romans toyed with a kind of Russian-doll feast of raw meat involving a mouse placed inside a chicken, placed inside a peacock, inside a boar, and so on. The diner would sit in a scalding hot bath in order to cook his meal from the outside. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in severe illness and several fatalities, and was mocked by public intellectuals from Juvenal30 to Pliny.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 59 | location 899-900 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 12:08:27

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE IS indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 65 | location 994-996 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 12:19:21

It’s sometimes helpful to think of evolution as the failure of the least fit, rather than survival of the fittest. Among the diversity of processes and techniques, some will fail, becoming rare or eliminated by society over generations. The rest will continue to be copied and available to the social group, giving populations adaptive flexibility.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 143-145 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 22:16:56

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 193-197 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 22:21:40

When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves. When we open ourselves up to a TV program, we let ourselves be invaded by the program. Sometimes it is a good program, but often it is just noisy. Because we want to have something other than ourselves enter us, we sit there and let a noisy television program invade us, assail us, destroy us. Even if our nervous system suffers, we don’t have the courage to stand up and turn it off, because if we do that, we will have to return to our self.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 245-247 | Added on Sunday, 20 February 2022 21:50:59

When Buddhists say, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” they are expressing trust in their own capacity of understanding, of becoming awake. The Chinese and the Vietnamese say, “I go back and rely on the Buddha in me.” Adding “in me” makes it very clear that you yourself are the Buddha.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 366-367 | Added on Sunday, 20 February 2022 22:03:46

Reality, ultimate reality, is free from all adjectives, either pure or impure.


Instapaper: Monday, Feb. 21st (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 93-97 | Added on Monday, 21 February 2022 23:15:26

Such theories sound incredible, and perhaps they are. But then again, so is every other possible theory that explains consciousness. “The more I think about [any theory], the less plausible it becomes,” says Chalmers. “One starts as a materialist, then turns into a dualist, then a panpsychist, then an idealist,” he adds, echoing his paper on the subject. Idealism holds that physical matter does not exist at all and conscious experience is the only thing there is. From that perspective, panpsychism is quite moderate.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 581-585 | Added on Tuesday, 22 February 2022 09:16:02

Leaves are usually looked upon as the children of the tree. Yes, they are children of the tree, born from the tree, but they are also mothers of the tree. The leaves combine raw sap, water, and minerals, with sunshine and gas, and convert it into a variegated sap that can nourish the tree. In this way, the leaves become the mother of the tree. We are all children of society, but we are also mothers. We have to nourish society. If we are uprooted from society, we cannot transform it into a more livable place for us and for our children. The leaves are linked to the tree by a stem. The stem is very important.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 115 | location 1750-1752 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 09:00:32

There is usually a longer gap for No responses than Yes responses. But we’re predisposed to give positive responses as part of our evolved adaptation for cooperation, so it really is harder to say No. Imaging studies show our brains recoil from the word No.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 121 | location 1845-1846 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 09:13:03

“We are different people when we use different languages. Language has power over us. Our humor changes. Our body language changes. I like to use Turkish to write about sadness and English when writing satire,” explains author Elif Shafak.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 126 | location 1920-1922 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 09:21:47

From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human thought takes place within language mindsets, and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each language—an extraordinary idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent studies, and many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

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a recent brain-scan experiment,10 in which people were offered cash in exchange for painful (but harmless) electric shocks being applied to them or to a stranger, they experienced less pleasure when they got the cash at someone else’s cost than when they got a smaller payout but suffered the pain themselves.


Instapaper: Monday, Feb. 21st (Instapaper)

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I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands.


Instapaper: Monday, Feb. 21st (Instapaper)

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Here in the supreme simplicity of life amid these mountains the spirit laughs at man’s concern with the form of Art, with new expression because the old is outworn! It is man’s own poverty of vision yielding him nothing, so that to save himself he must trick out in new garb the old, old commonplaces, or exalt to be material for art the hitherto discarded trivialities of the mind.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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In modern society most of us don’t want to be in touch with ourselves; we want to be in touch with other things like religion, sports, politics, a book—we want to forget ourselves. Anytime we have leisure, we want to invite something else to enter us, opening ourselves to the television and telling the television to come and colonize us.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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Interbeing is a new word in English, and I hope it will be accepted. We have talked about the many in the one, and the one containing the many. In one sheet of paper, we see everything else, the cloud, the forest, the logger. I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am. That is the meaning of the word interbeing. We interare.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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The first promise is: “I vow to develop my compassion in order to love and protect the life of people, animals, plants, and minerals.” The second promise is: “I vow to develop understanding in order to be able to love and to live in harmony with people, animals, plants, and minerals.”


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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There is a gatha that can be recited before picking up the telephone: Words can travel across thousands of miles. May my words create mutual understanding and love. May they be as beautiful as gems, as lovely as flowers.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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If the Buddha, were here, he could not avoid that either. The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

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“Calming, Smiling. Present moment, Wonderful moment.”


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

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It is through the symbolism and meaning of beauty that we draw unity, community, shared values and beliefs, compassion, and other emotions that bind us as cooperative societies.


Instapaper: Friday, Feb. 25th (Instapaper)

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The metaverse is just another platform like the ones we already know: a means for bosses to better control workers, for retailers to have more information and leverage over shoppers, and for advertisers to have the data and space to target people with more ads.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

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We trade with each other because it improves our survival: specialization is the most energy-efficient strategy,5 which is why it is ubiquitous across biological systems, from ants to brain cells.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

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A SMALL MUSEUM in the Bavarian town of Ulm, on the banks of the Danube, holds in its collection an exquisite figurine, called the LionMan. Carved 40,000 years ago from a piece of mammoth ivory, this mysterious beast has the head of a cave lion—its carver’s most fearsome predator—and the stance of a human, and is the oldest known physical representation of a supernatural being.

The Lion-human of Hohlenstein-Stadel

The Lion-Person (its intended gender is the subject of debate) is “the oldest known physical representation of a supernatural being,” a 30cm figurine dating back approximately 40,000 years. Carved from a mammoth tusk, scientists estimate it would have taken a skilled person around 400 hours to create with the tools of the era.

That long of a process implies that the culture that produced it made room for artists or craftspeople, excusing them from at least some of the more survival-oriented duties of the tribe to create objects of beauty and imagination. As the British Museum’s Jill Cook puts it (quoted in Wikipedia), the object points to “… a relationship to things unseen, to the vital forces of nature, that you need to perhaps propitiate, perhaps connect to, in order to ensure your successful life.”

As incredible as the artifact itself is, I was also surprised to learn that is in a museum in Ulm, a relatively small German city on the border of Bavaria. I would just assume that something like this would be in one of the world’s largest or best resourced museums. It just goes to show what wonders you can stumble across in unexpected places.

(Found through a reference in Gaia Vince’s book Transcendence, which is packed with so many fascinating asides that I’ve had to stop bugging my partner with them and start sharing them here.)

What I Read in January 2022

Non-fiction

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (James Bridle, 2018)

Read in preparation for Bridle’s upcoming Ways of Being, which sounds like a more optimistic expansions of New Dark Age’s themes. Not that I think Bridle was wrong to be concerned about the consequences of our current technological direction, and New Dark Age makes an excellent case that the desire to conflate the real with the computable is causing more harm than good. Well-chosen examples make for an enjoyable read, but Bridle’s critiques have permeated the culture over the last few years. Diagnosing the problem is important, but dark as things get, the future never truly ends, and I’m looking forward to something with a little more hope.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (David Graeber & David Wengrow, 2021)

If there’s one key arguments I took from this—and given its massive scope, it’s probably foolish to reduce it to a single message—but if there is, it’s that society and humanity are much more malleable than we usually think. The Davids take it as their task to complicate our notion of pre-history. Instead of a straightforward progression from utopian foraging cultures to hierarchical farming states, they point out that there’s been an incredible variety in how societies organize. Some societies even change their models seasonally, choosing different structures, hierarchies, and even identities throughout the year.

Given all that variety, the question is: how did we get so stuck in one model of society, and how do we start imagining a way forward? I’ve seen grumblings that Dawn of Everything’s history isn’t as radical as it presents itself, and that it isn’t as accurate as it should be, but taken as a prompt for imagining better futures, it’s still well worth a read.

My View of the World (Erwin Schrödinger, 1951)

Maria Popova’s Marginalian blog prompted this one, and while her summary does a fantastic job capturing both the meaning and the spirit of Schrödinger’s essays, I’m still glad to have read its entirety. Popular memory of cultural figures tends to reduce them to a single idea, and for Schrödinger it’s the one thought experiment; if it wasn’t for Popova’s post I would never have guessed he was writing on notions of panpsychism or universal consciousness while he was also helping redefine our understand of the nature of reality. His writing is wonderfully poetic in places (“What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?”), a touch overly technical in others, but I guess that’s to be expected for someone with such wide-roaming thoughts.

Fiction

The Taiga Syndrome (Cristina Rivera Garza, 2018)

Referenced in Jack Young’s phenomenal essay, Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community, Garza’s book is something like a detective story, a poem, a fairy tale, and a collection of cryptic koans. Difficult to pin down, in other words, but fortunately it’s short enough to be read in one sitting, which makes it more inviting for future re-reading. Given how obliquely it approaches its subjects, it strikes me as one that will reward time spent percolating in the unconscious, too.

“A Story of America in Three Scams”

A blend of a whodunnit, art appreciation, and political analysis, Richard Warnica’s Hazlitt piece Rothko at the Inauguration traces the history and repercussions of one of New York’s biggest art scandals, its connection to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the lasting impact of the battle over Rothko’s legacy.

As much as I appreciated the art scene intrigue, it’s Warnica’s own obsession with Rothko that really stuck with me. Describing the impact of those paintings is no easy task. Seeing a photo doesn’t do them justice; there’s an emotional power to them that only really comes with seeing them in person, a combination of their scale and some mysterious aspect of their technique. You can feel that struggle in the way Warnica talks about the paintings, a mix of straightforward description and pure emotion:

“There were purples and greens, blues, oranges, tans: all of them arranged in stacked blocks of colour with those tide pool edges—the spaces in-between where everything combines. I don’t know how long I sat there. I know I cried, although even now I’d have trouble breaking down the exact alchemy of why.”

“Rothko at the Inauguration” is about institutional rot and the corrupting influence of “easy” money, along with the way the financialization of fine art has played into those stories. Where some writers approach that subject with academic detachment, Warnica never forgets how art gained that power in the first place. Before it became just one more financial vehicle, a faceless asset in a tax-sheltered storage facility, it was a gateway to transcendence.

How A.I. Conquered Poker

The NYT Magazine looks at how sophisticated AI has completely changed the way professional poker players approach the game. As the article says, finding tools and tricks to override human instinct and understand probabilities has always been part of the game, but it’s still a bit eerie reading about top players finding ways to turn themselves into extensions of a computer algorithm, memorizing decision trees and developing tricks for generating random numbers in order to emulate the program’s preferred strategy.

10 Useful Distractions from 2021

I’ve been struggling to find something to say about 2021 to open this post. The first day of 2022 isn’t really a vantage point to have any perspective on the last year; it’s too close to a year that refused to take any sort of shape while I was in it, and still defies any easy summary. People have joked that we’re 600+ days into March, 2020, and they aren’t entirely wrong—in some ways, life has felt on hold since then. But if 2020 felt like a year derailed by an unexpected catastrophe, 2021 was something different, a year of moving goal posts, of finish lines receding ever further into the distance, or evaporating like a desert mirage.

It was a year that happened in fits and starts, with events either bleeding together or floating like bubbles, devoid of context and difficult to assemble into anything like a narrative. I know there was an Olympics. I’ve been vaccinated three times now, which in late 2020 looked like an end point, but now is clearly just a step along a much larger path. There have been stretches where socializing felt safe and almost normal, and others where navigating new understandings of etiquette strained friendships and put plans on indefinite hold.

All of that made 2021 a year in need of anchors, and that’s what this list was for me. The older I get, the harder it is to pretend my year-end lists are anything resembling authoritative or comprehensive, so I’ve stopped trying on that front. Instead, these are 10 things that grabbed my attention and held it in a year full of anxious distractions. Not all of them came out last year, but they were my escapes into fact, fiction, and fantasy, and I’d highly recommend them if you’re looking for the same.

  1. Babel – Meghan O’Gieblyn (2021, essay)An article about AI-generated text that uses the eeriness of its subject as a jumping-off point for an exploration of consciousness, narrative, and communication. It’s an exceptional blend of the personal and the academic, finding ties between the questions posed by AI, its implications on the future of creativity, and our own relationship to the unconscious forces that shape our realities.
  2. Children of the Stones (1977, TV series)Probably inspired by my anticipation for Kier-La Janisse’s excellent, three-hour-plus history of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, I spent more than a few hours in 2021 exploring old BBC horror-ish programs. 1969’s The Owl Service gets talked about more, but Children of the Stones was a more accessible gateway for me, a series that’s obviously aimed at young teens but manages to combine a decent mystery with an interesting take on occultism and a rich layering of timelines and conspiracies. You have to be willing to deal with 1970s BBC production values, which is probably an acquired taste, but if you can get past that, the series has a lot to offer.
  3. Entangled Life – Merlin Sheldrake (2020, non-fiction book)“Nominative determinism” is the idea that people are drawn to careers that suit their name—that a Jeeves is more likely to be a butler than a mechanic, say. It’s not an idea worth putting too much stock in, but it’s still a joy that a book like this would be written by someone named Merlin Sheldrake.Entangled Life is an attempt to identify with fungi, to see the world through a kingdom of life that is closer to us than it is to plants, but alien in so many ways. Like Thomas Nagel asking What Is It Like to Be a Bat, Sheldrake tries to understand how fungi experience the world, reveling in its myriad forms, celebrating its complex relationship with plant and animal life, and marveling at its seeming spatial intelligence. The science is fascinating, and the world of metaphor that it opens up through outlining an utterly alien way of being is positively mind-expanding.
  4. Mega Bog – Life, And Another (2021, LP)Picking just one album to include here is a bit of a nightmare—I had a hard enough time narrowing it down to 100 for my annual year-in-review episodes—but something in Mega Bog’s off-kilter psych-folk has consistently kept it at the front of my mind whenever I think about my favourite albums of 2021. In a year where I was mostly drawn to the meditative comfort of ambient electronic music, Erin Birgy’s eclectic songwriting was a reminder that there’s still a lot of life left in guitar music. Melodic, accessible, inventive, and absorbing.
  5. Midnight Mass (2021, mini-series)I knew absolutely nothing about this series going into it, which might just be the best way to experience it, so feel free to skip to the next entry. With that out of the way: Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix offering is a novel take on a well-tread horror genre (he also did The Haunting of Hill House, which was solid, and The Haunting of Bly Manor, which I haven’t seen). To me, a sign of a great story is when it lends itself to multiple interpretations, and Midnight Mass works as a story about our fear of mortality, a metaphor for addiction and over-consumption, a critique of self-serving religiosity, and a funny, bittersweet monster movie. And like the best horror stories, the monster is ultimately a secondary villain next to the flawed, self-deluding humans who are all too willing to ignore some major red flags in order to see what they want to see.The pacing is inconsistent and the characters speak in monologues that never quite feel natural, but I fell into its rhythms pretty quickly, and it’s definitely up there in the top few Netflix originals to date.
  6. Pig (2021, film)When I first heard the premise of Pig—Nic Cage as a truffle hunter tracking down the people who stole his pig—I expected something along the lines of Mandy. Instead of an over-the-top revenge story and a gonzo Cage performance, I got something much more subtle, and much more rewarding. It’s a story about loss, and about the sacrifices people make in the world, the ways we shave the edges off our dreams to get ahead, until we forget what they looked like in the first place. It’s about the emotional power of food to connect us with memories and feelings we’ve long forgotten. And between all of that, it is a revenge story, just one that defies expectation at every turn.For an odd double-feature, pair Pig with Swan Song, starring Udo Kier, another case of an actor best known for his offbeat presence working in a more subtle register. It’s another film where a formerly successful service industry professional who now lives a spartan life removed from any former community has to reconnect with the city and people that once helped define them, reflect on loss of a loved one that still dominates their life, grapple with the gap between the real connections they wanted to make through their work and the consumer relationship that ultimately defined it, and regain some element of who they used to be.
  7. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020, fantasy novel)I can’t remember the last time I was so engrossed in a work of fiction. Clarke’s much-delayed second novel is very different stylistically from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; it’s a short novel with a small cast of characters written in a naive voice, and without the dense footnotes that fleshed out the world of her debut. Some of the themes are the same, especially around the lengths some people will go to re-enchant the world, and the dangers of playing with forces beyond your comprehension, let alone your control.As satisfying as the story is—and it’s really one of the best fantasy stories I’ve read in years—the joy of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the way he sees things. His world is full of omens and lessons, art to be interpreted and patterns to be understood. Even though you know that things are more complex and darker than he comprehends, it’s a pleasure to view his world through his eyes.
  8. Preternatural Investigations – Sharron Kraus (2020, podcast)Recorded and released in the first year of the pandemic, Kraus’ 12-part podcast series touches on a lot of themes that appear in the other items on this list. There are multiple references to folk horror and the darker side of fantasy. The concept of re-enchantment is at its core, looking for ways to reconcile the magic of places and music and stories and art within a rationalist worldview. It looks at how wonder and awe can be found in the world, and how different rituals and philosophical frameworks can help us access that framework. And it’s all backed by beautifully atmospheric music from Kraus, an understated score that consistently enhances the already thoughtful narration.
  9. Welcoming the Stranger as an Act of Delight – Jeremy Klaszus (2021, interview)The Sprawl is an independent news outlet in Calgary, AB that practices slow journalism—more thoughtful takes on issues and events that can sit outside the typical news cycle. As much as I appreciate their political coverage (especially with how hollowed out traditional news media has become here), my favourite pieces tend to be the ones that break from the news world entirely. This interview with religious scholar David Goa from their “Mighty Neighbourly” 20th edition exemplifies what the Sprawl does best, engaging in a thoughtful conversation about community and a broader examination of what it means to be a good neighbour, and why we should care.
  10. What the Walls Feel as They Stare at Rob Ford Sitting in His Office (2020, short animation)I watched a lot of animation in 2021, and I can say with confidence that it was one of the strongest years I’ve seen in terms of independent animation. Even within that context, though, there was one film that stopped me in my tracks every time I came across it: Guillaume Pelletier-Auger’s video for composer Frank Gorvat’s oddly-titled piece, What the Walls Feel as They Stare at Rob Ford Sitting in His Office.It’s almost a stereotype of experimental animation, with simple shapes moving around the screen to drifting contemporary chamber music. Lines of circles, draped like beads, moving in increasingly complex patterns, which those of you who are more versed in mathematics can read about in the director’s detailed making-of post. That reductive description doesn’t do justice to Pelletier-Auger’s achievement here, though. The balance of simple shapes and complex patterns makes for one of the year’s most immersive film experiences, a ten-minute meditation to get utterly lost in when the need arises.