mindfulness nonattachment oneness
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And see Insight Dice for a new experiment in Mindfulness + Nonattachment + Oneness!

toki sona - mi mute li wan


mi mute li wan

We are One

(cf Mantra - We Are One (2017-04-18), ...) - ^z - 2024-07-11

- Thursday, July 11, 2024 at 07:23:25 (EDT)

Johnstone Advice for Improvisors

From Canada's Theatre Museum's 2017 interview (by Rebecca Northan) with Keith Johnstone (1933-2023), in response to the question, "Do you have advice for the next generation of Improvisers?", Johnstone's reply:

... Please, please try and be truthful and good-natured for God's sake, and stop being so damn competitive! Be average please — because I want your best work, and you can't get your best work when you try and do your best.

Try to do anything wonderfully well — go out and watch the sunset and write a great poem about it? No! Go write an average poem about it, and you have some hope for getting something good! ...

(cf Impro (2012-11-10), Yes, and... (2012-11-14), Keith Johnstone Improv Quotes (2013-12-26), Don't Do Your Best (2023-09-10), ...) - ^z - 2023-06-28

- Friday, June 28, 2024 at 08:21:13 (EDT)

Spectra of Friendship

In the New York Times article "The Vexing Problem of the ‘Medium Friend’" (22 June 2024) Lisa Miller analyzes, thoughtfully and with nuance, the range of "Friendships". It's a longish essay that makes a host of good points along the way. Memorable tidbits:

Hmmmm! — perhaps "Friendships", like most things in the universe, should be evaluated in multiple dimensions (spiritual, financial, emotional, erotic, ...), maybe on logarithmic scales, possibly with explicit measurement-uncertainty estimates — and modeled over time with awareness of causality (feedback-loops and time-delays) and chance (random forces) and conflict (clashing motivations and goals)?!

(cf Virtual Friendships (1999-11-05), How to Win Friends and Influence People (2008-05-17), Running Friendships (2012-03-06), It's a Big Beautiful World (2021-05-03), Secure Attachment (2022-09-08), ...) - ^z - 2024-06-23

- Sunday, June 23, 2024 at 10:55:02 (EDT)

toki sona - tan sewi suli


tenpo pini la
mi anpa
tan sewi suli

We've fallen from greater heights!

(cf Mantra - We've Fallen (2017-08-11), ...) - ^z - 2024-06-19

- Wednesday, June 19, 2024 at 20:22:47 (EDT)

toki sona - o lukin e mun


o lukin ala e luka
o lukin e mun

Don't look at the finger pointing at the Moon — look at the Moon!

(cf Go for the Moon (2013-10-26), Mantra - Go for the Moon (2016-07-18), ...) - ^z - 2024-06-17

- Monday, June 17, 2024 at 07:39:00 (EDT)

Mitsuko Uchida on Life

Some entertaining (and blunt!) bits from 75-year-old piano virtuosa Mitsuko Uchida in a 2024 New York Times interview by Javier Hernández:

How do you see your artistry in this phase of your career?

My artistry? Excuse me? I live one day at a time.

What do you mean?

Do you think I am navel-watching every day, or what? Excuse me, I am a musician. I am not anybody that important or anything. I just want to understand music. That’s all.


Did you change at all during the pandemic?

I bet I have. But I am not self-analyzing.

Did it change your routine?

I was so happy to be home. I love not to travel. For once, I could afford to waste my time. It was fantastic.

What do you do now in your free time?

When I am free, I am at home and I study or play music. I want to have time to think. And you need to breathe and to dream.

When you take time to dream, do you have revelations about life or music?

I never have revelations in my life. Or if I do, I won’t tell you.

(cf MusicMaster (2001-06-04) Universal Music (2013-01-26), Mantra - Notice the Music (2014-12-06), Winter's Tale on Music Everywhere (2014-12-23), ...) - ^z - 2024-06-08

- Saturday, June 08, 2024 at 07:23:45 (EDT)

Geometric Folding Algorithms

Geometric Folding Algorithms: linkages, origami, polyhedra by Erik Demaine and Joseph O'Rourke is a math textbook published in 2007. It's a somewhat formal-grandfatherly version of the 2011 book How to Fold It, with similar coverage and style. Both authors are professors of computer science, Demaine at MIT, O'Rourke at Smith College. Particularly fascinating are the discussions of how hard various computational geometry problems are to solve in the complexity hierarchy.

(cf How to Fold It (2024-05-18), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-18

- Wednesday, May 29, 2024 at 17:20:01 (EDT)

How Minds Change

David McRaney's 2022 book How Minds Change unfortunately feels fluffy-anecdotal as it discusses, in ~300 pages, important philosophical issues of metacognition and belief. There are plenty of stories and lots of name-dropping. The bottom line, however, is a gem hidden in the midst of Chapter 9 ("Street Epistemology"), a path to help people think better, via one-on-one conversation:

  1. Establish rapport. Assure the other person you aren't out to shame them, and then ask for consent to explore their reasoning.
  2. Ask for a claim.
  3. Confirm the claim by repeating it back in your own words. Ask if you've done a good job summarizing. Repeat until they are satisfied.
  4. Clarify their definitions. Use those definitions, not yours.
  5. Ask for a numerical measure of confidence in their claim.
  6. Ask what reasons they have to hold that level of confidence.
  7. Ask what method they've used to judge the quality of their reasons. Focus on that method for the rest of the conversation.
  8. Listen, summarize, repeat.
  9. Wrap up and wish them well.

The beauty of this approach, developed by Peter Boghossian, Anthony Magnabosco, and others (going back to Socrates and beyond!) is that it can help "promote critical thinking and respectful dialogue" – good throughout life, not just for politics, medicine, religion, technology, science, or other realms. As McRaney summarizes:

... street epistemology is about improving people's methods for arriving at confidence, not about persuading someone to believe one thing more than another. Maybe in the beginning it was, but today there's no belief they are pushing, no agenda, no policy on which they want people to vote yes or no. After all, if they've learned anything from the method, it's that [Anthony Magnabosco] or or anyone else in the community could be wrong.

That's intellectual honesty!

(cf Metacognition and Open Mindedness (2015-11-15), Seeking Negative Space (2016-04-21), Teach Yourself How to Learn (2018-03-05), Metacognitive Awareness (2018-05-19), Metacognitive Classroom (2019-09-06), Metacognitive Reading (2021-10-21), Metacognitive Experiences (2022-03-29), Clark Glymour on Epistemology (2022-07-21), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-21

- Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at 21:51:49 (EDT)

How To Fold It

How to Fold It: The Mathematics of Linkages, Origami, and Polyhedra (2011, Cambridge University Press) by Joseph O'Rourke is a technical book that's also highly readable. There's deep math in it, but most of the discussion only requires high-school algebra and geometry to follow. Among the fascinating questions that O'Rourke addresses are:

Delightful discussions, grounded in physical reality and reminiscent of Z. A. Melzak's Companion to Concrete Mathematics.

(cf Applied Bypasses (1999-04-14), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-18

- Saturday, May 18, 2024 at 22:36:18 (EDT)

Patterns in the Mind

"... the language we hear in our heads while thinking is a conscious manifestation of the thought—not the thought itself, which isn’t present to consciousness ..."

Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature (1993) by Ray Jackendoff is a captivating exploration of how people think and the patterns people use to express and share ideas. Many of the key concepts that Jackendoff analyzes overlap with those described by Marvin Minsky (Society of Mind, 1986) and Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, 1991), and more recently, Anil Seth (Being You, 2021). In the poetic words of John Kabat-Zinn, each offers "a glimpse through one face of the multifaceted diamond ... related to each other by tiny rotations of the crystal". Their bottom line perhaps could be summarized:

Quite an awesome accomplishment for creatures evolved from simple chemicals over a few billion years!

Jackendoff begins with three "Fundamental Arguments" in Chapter 1 of Patterns in the Mind:

He expands and explains his "Fundamental Arguments" in the rest of the book, and applies them to music, sign-language, and mind itself. Fascinating!

(see also jan Telakoman's delightful video essay "Language Learning and Your Inner Horse and (Telakoman's recommendation) "Jackendoff is not crazy! (Or about phonology and consciousness)" by José-Luis Mendívil; and cf Thoughtful Metaphors (2000-11-08), Marvin Minsky Speaks (2004-03-25), Being You (2023-11-01), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-12

- Monday, May 13, 2024 at 07:15:19 (EDT)


At 400+ pages, Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind isn't brief. It isn't historically accurate either. A quick skim encounters implausible anecdotes (e.g., in Chapter 15 a silly joke about the 1969 mission to the moon is offered as fact) and technical misunderstandings (e.g., in Chapter 16 a garbled description of fractional-reserving banking). Harari's attempts to convey key concepts from the physical sciences are likewise flawed (e.g., in Chapters 7 and 14 raw equations are displayed without context, to intimidate rather than educate). The "Scholarly Reception" in Wikipedia highlights further issues.

The world needs more good explanations of important big-picture long-term issues. Sapiens isn't sapient. Too bad!

^z - 2024-05-10

- Friday, May 10, 2024 at 18:24:25 (EDT)

Other Significant Others

The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center, by Rhaina Cohen, is both wonderfully open and frustratingly narrow. It explores vast generational-societal issues, yet spirals down whirlpools of personal anecdote. It wrestles with vital questions of loving-kindness, then flips into selfish-childish clinging. Perhaps instead of a book it could have made an awesomely thoughtful essay?

Key themes that Cohen analyzes include:

Cohen mentions the concept of mapping a person's "social atom" – drawing bubbles on a page, with "... the size of the circles and their distance from the center represent[ing] the space each person takes up in their lives and how close they are." She quotes studies that suggest most people can only have ~5 truly close friends at a time, that a romantic relationship may occupy ~2 of those five slots, and that the half-life of most friendships is ~7 years.

Fascinating! – and perhaps leading to testable hypotheses with important large-scale consequences. Hmmmm!

(see also Cohen's 2020 article in The Atlantic titled "What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?", and cf Virtual Friendships (1999-11-05), Running Friendships (2012-03-06), Friendship and Meditation (2012-11-06), Stand by You (2017-01-11), Friend Sits by Friend (2018-07-04), Friendship (2023-09-28), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-07

- Tuesday, May 07, 2024 at 16:59:07 (EDT)

Shrub Dryad

An extraordinary person who shares gems of powerful wisdom: "Shrub Dryad" (on Youtube & Bluesky). See, for starters:

"You need to have somebody in your life who is trans, who you love. Even if it's parasocially. Even if it's somebody on the internet who will never know you exist. Because not having any trans people in your life is no way to live."

"Basically, the idea is that when you have so few words, you have to find very minimalist ways of speaking, and perhaps minimalist ways of thinking, and that can help you reduce the perceived complexity in your life, and it can help you just think about things in a new way, break them down to what are they, really?"

pona tawa sina

(cf This Is How It Always Is (2018-02-02), Live in the World with Grace (2021-08-10), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-07

- Tuesday, May 07, 2024 at 08:47:43 (EDT)

Quick Strength for Runners

Jeff Horowitz's book Quick Strength for Runners: 8 Weeks to a Better Runner's Body suggests exercises and, even better, offers wisdom. Three gems:


(cf Marathon Training Advice from Brad Hudson (2011-01-23), Inner Strength Training (2016-07-05), Build Resilience (2022-02-10), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-05

- Sunday, May 05, 2024 at 15:06:51 (EDT)

toki sona - o pilin pona


o pilin pona

Be Happy! — or, more literally, "Feel Good!"

(cf Optimist Creed (1999-04-16), Mantra - Happiness Is (2018-03-20), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-02

- Thursday, May 02, 2024 at 08:15:35 (EDT)

toki sona - lon poki sina


o lon poka sina

At Your Side!

(cf Mantra - At Your Side (2015-09-18), ...) - ^z - 2024-05-01

- Wednesday, May 01, 2024 at 07:55:58 (EDT)

toki sona - o pali lili

o pali lili
o pali pona

Do Less, Better! — or, more literally, "Do Little, Do Well"

(cf Mantra - Do Less, Better (2016-12-14), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-30

- Tuesday, April 30, 2024 at 13:08:33 (EDT)

toki sona - ale li pona


ale li pona

All is Good

(cf Mantra - It's All Good (2015-01-09), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-29

- Monday, April 29, 2024 at 07:53:07 (EDT)

toki sona - o waso telo


o waso telo
o jo ala

Be a Duck, not a Sponge! — or more literally, "O, be a Bird of Water, not a Clinger!"

(cf Mantra - Be a Duck, Not a Sponge (2016-08-15), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-28

- Sunday, April 28, 2024 at 19:00:23 (EDT)

toki sona - o kiwen pi kule ala


o kiwen pi kule ala

Be a Gray Rock! — or more literally, "O, be a Rock of No Color!"

(cf Mantra - Be a Gray Rock, ...) - ^z - 2024-04-27

- Saturday, April 27, 2024 at 16:53:29 (EDT)

I Will Fail to Reject You

"... there is a fundamental disconnect between the kind of evidence that reassures human beings and the kind of evidence that the laws of statistics and science allow us to collect.

There is a joke among epidemiologists that encapsulates this disconnect: the marriage vow between two epidemiologists goes "I promise to always fail to reject you." There is a reason why this is funny (to at least some of us). ..."

... from page 248 of Denying to the Grave: Why we ignore the facts that will save us by Sara E Gorman & Jack M Gorman (2017).

Funny? As the parenthetical aside suggests, perhaps mainly to epidemiologists and statisticians (based on a non-representative sample of N = 5 taken yesterday). What's the joke referring to? It's about the non-intuitive process of testing a hypothesis against experimental data. In brief, thinking is hard – especially when doing rigorous analysis of noisy, incomplete samples. Most of the time the evidence doesn't tell us what we want to know, namely causal relationships; it tells us how likely we might have seen this result purely by chance.

And marriage is hard too!

(cf Medicine and Statistics (2010-11-13), Statistical Hypothesis Inference Testing (2013-12-01), P-Hacking (2014-09-20), Ten Common Statistical Mistakes (2019-10-14), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-27

- Saturday, April 27, 2024 at 07:43:56 (EDT)

Mantra - Thoughts Are Not Words

"Toki Pona helps you to realize that
thoughts are not made of words,
like being a fish and discovering that
the universe is not made of water"

... a comment by "jan Telakoman", from the discussion thread "Benefits of Toki Pona" (April 2024) ... and as translated into Toki Pona by "Markster94":

jan la, sona li nimi ala.
kala la, ale li telo ala.

... or in English:

To a person, knowledge is not words.
To a fish, everything is not water.

(cf This Is Water (2009-05-21), Zen, Words, and the World (2012-01-03), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-25

- Thursday, April 25, 2024 at 07:32:54 (EDT)

It's Complicated

"The Most Important Thing I Teach My Students Isn’t on the Syllabus", a NYT op-ed essay by Frank Bruni, focuses on intellectual humility:

... I’m going to repeat one phrase more often than any other: “It’s complicated.” They’ll become familiar with that. They may even become bored with it. I’ll sometimes say it when we’re discussing the roots and branches of a social ill, the motivations of public (and private) actors and a whole lot else, and that’s because I’m standing before them not as an ambassador of certainty or a font of unassailable verities but as an emissary of doubt. I want to give them intelligent questions, not final answers. I want to teach them how much they have to learn — and how much they will always have to learn.

I’d been on the faculty of Duke University and delivering that spiel for more than two years before I realized that each component of it was about the same quality: humility. ... “it’s complicated” is a bulwark against arrogance, absolutism, purity, zeal.

Bruni analyzes grievance – the subject of a forthcoming book of his:

We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance — by too many Americans’ obsession with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire. This anger reflects a pessimism that previous generations didn’t feel. The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turned out, were better at inflaming us than uniting us. They promote a self-obsession at odds with community, civility, comity and compromise. It’s a problem of humility.

And Bruni's bottom line: "... progress can be made not by shaming people, not by telling them how awful they are, but by suggesting how much better they could be ..." — and he concludes, hopefully:

We all carry wounds, and some of us carry wounds much graver than others. We confront obstacles, including unjust and senseless ones. We must tend to those wounds. We must push hard at those obstacles. But we mustn’t treat every wound, every obstacle, as some cosmic outrage or mortal danger. We mustn’t lose sight of the struggle, imperfection and randomness of life. We mustn’t overstate our vulnerability and exaggerate our due.

While grievance blows our concerns out of proportion, humility puts them in perspective. While grievance reduces the people with whom we disagree to caricature, humility acknowledges that they’re every bit as complex as we are — with as much of a stake in creating a more perfect union.

Good thoughts — perhaps all facets of practicing lovingkindness toward one another ...

(cf Wee Bit More Complicated (2007-08-29), Critical Thinking (2009-12-03), Riot Act (2010-07-07), Christensen on Humility (2010-09-03), Hanson on Humility (2013-03-28), Mantra - Love, Simplicity, Humility (2016-03-29), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-21

- Sunday, April 21, 2024 at 08:03:21 (EDT)

Four Pillars of Investing

William J Bernstein's book The Four Pillars of Investing is a rational guide to lifetime financial success. His "Four Pillars" are:

  1. Investment Theory
  2. Investment History
  3. Investment Psychology
  4. Investment Business

Solid advice! And yes, the "Four Pillars" aren't independent of each other — but they do provide a framework for Bernstein's detailed explanations and analyses. Don't do anything crazy, don't trust people who are about to make money by telling you what to do, and don't underestimate risks. As Jonathan Clemens says in his Foreword, the future is uncertain and "... we get just one shot at making the financial journey from here to retirement — and we can't afford to fail."

(cf Money Wisdom (2001-05-20), Bubble Busters (2002-02-06), Harry Browne Rules of Financial Safety (2019-12-24), Shiller Price Earnings Ratio (2021-03-29), Bogleheads (2024-01-28), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-19

- Friday, April 19, 2024 at 19:41:39 (EDT)

Classical Virtues

Calling all fans of lists and virtues! David French's NYT op-ed "The Atmosphere of the ‘Manosphere’ Is Toxic" offers three alternative visions of the Good Life:

(cf Ethical Fitness (2000-12-15), Franklin's Virtues (2008-05-23), Righteous Mind (2020-07-12), Various Virtues (2023-08-24), ... ) - ^z - 2024-04-14

- Sunday, April 14, 2024 at 19:44:15 (EDT)

Middle Manager Magic

David Brooks in his NYT column "The Quiet Magic of Middle Managers" writes movingly about the foundations of "ethical leadership":

(cf Ethical Fitness (2000-12-15), BuckMantras (2001-04-13), Principles of Ethical Power (2007-12-16), Ethical Issues Aside (2013-05-16), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-12

- Friday, April 12, 2024 at 18:26:11 (EDT)

Your Place in the Universe

If Bill & Ted wrote a book about cosmology it might be Your Place in the Universe: Understanding Our Big, Messy Existence – provided whatever the silly slacker duo said was technically accurate, based on modern (2018) observational astronomy and theoretical astrophysics. Author Paul M Sutter, a professor at Ohio State University, spices his writing with wicked puns and parenthetical asides as he explains the Big Bang, stellar evolution, quantum fields, general relativity, and the ultimate fate of the universe. He's delightfully meticulous in his emphasis of the unknowns in our current understanding of the cosmos. From Sutter's bottom-line summary near the end of the book:

... I'll be the first to admit that this picture is a bit hard to swallow, but we should remember that, well, the universe doesn't care what we think about the issue, and it's the (extreme) logical conclusion if we're to take our most modern theories at face value.

Or maybe we're just wrong about all of it. It's not like it hasn't happened before.

We don't know if inflation is correct. We don't know how the rules of quantum mechanics can be extended to incomprehensible timescales. We don't know if the technology of entropy can be applied to the whole entire universe, let alone over the course of an exceedingly exponential number of years.

And don't even get me started on braneworld cosmologies or string theories or whatever the kids are calling it these days. The more hypothetical the physics, the more room for creative explorations of the end state (states?) of the universe.

Our knowledge of the universe at 10100 years isn't much different from our knowledge at 10-100 seconds: woefully incomplete. In both cases it's the energies involved. In the young cosmos, the temperatures are so high and pressures so extreme that the physics of the familiar are melded together into some strange chimera that eludes understanding. In the remote future, temperatures are so low and processes so agonizingly slow that the statistical rules that govern our daily lives lose their identity. In both cases the universe is extreme, exotic, and potentially unknowable. At its core, after centuries of searching, we don't know how the universe began or how it will end—or if those are even reasonable scientific questions to ponder.

But at least there is symmetry.

Highly recommended!

(cf Cherished Beliefs (2000-04-19), Universal Knowns (2002-06-13), Little Book of Cosmology (2023-03-31), Little Book of Aliens (2024-01-28), ...) - ^z - 2024-04-04

- Thursday, April 04, 2024 at 07:16:54 (EDT)

Black Hole Blues

Janna Levin's book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space is a history of the building of LIGO, the first gravitational wave observatory. It's readable and meticulous in its physics, and also artfully precise in the portraits it sketches of the primary participants behind the massive venture, a diverse set of scientists including Joe Weber, Robbie Vogt, Barry Barish, and "The Troika": Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever.

Bottom Line: scientists are human beings – insightful yet fallible, brilliant when not blind, charming and often petty. The search for gravitational waves was a huge challenge in multiple dimensions:

Impressive – Black Hole Blues the book, as well as LIGO!

(re my personal involvement in estimating cosmic sources of gravitational waves as a graduate student of Kip Thorne in the late 1970s, cf Kip the Dragon (2000-03-25), Relativity plus Astrophysics (2000-03-29), Cherished Beliefs (2000-04-19), Pulsar Waves (2000-04-06), Spinning Sources (2000-04-11), Quantum Nondemolition (2000-02-05), Soft Outside Crunchy Center (2000-05-01); and see also Gravitational Waves - Thirty Years Later (2011-07-15), 2018-01-27 - Slow French News, 2021-05-20 - Conservation of Physics, ...) - ^z - 2024-03-25

- Monday, March 25, 2024 at 17:26:11 (EDT)

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

"How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" is Dale Carnegie's 1948 book on developing peace of mind. It's long and fluffy, full of self-help anecdotes. Most of the advice is either blinding-obvious or easier-said-than-done exhortation. That's not bad – just a bit disappointing, perhaps. It's remedied by good Bottom Line summaries at the end of each chapter and section. Samples:

OK, ...

(cf How to Win Friends and Influence People (2008-05-17), ...) - ^z - 2024-03-24

- Sunday, March 24, 2024 at 06:41:57 (EDT)

Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality

Physicist Frank Wilczek's 2021 book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality is beautifully-written, technically precise, fast, and fun. It's deep and wide, practical and philosophical, objective and kind. Wilczek's "Ten Keys" are, briefly:

  1. "There's plenty of space" — the universe is vast compared to humans, and humans are vast compared to the fundamental particles that comprise us: "The world is large, but we are not small. It is truer to say that there's plenty of space, whether we scale up or down."
  2. "There's plenty of time" — the universe has been around vastly longer than humans have existed, and subatomic events happen on time scales vastly shorter than human perception
  3. "There are very few ingredients" — the universe is built using only a handful of types of particles (photons, electrons, quarks, gluons, and a few more exotic ones) with only a handful of properties (mass, charge, spin) and only a handful of forces (electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces)
  4. "There are very few laws" — everything is explained by quantum fields, which produce particles
  5. "There's plenty of matter and energy" — more than enough to meet all foreseeable human needs for billions of years
  6. "Cosmic history is an open book" — there's excellent observational evidence, back to near the origin of the universe
  7. "Complexity emerges" — simple physical laws and plausible initial conditions produce the extraordinarily complex universe that we live in today
  8. "There's plenty more to see" — new technologies will continue to extend the boundaries of perception
  9. "Mysteries remain" — not everything is understood about the universe, at both the smallest and the largest scales
  10. "Complementarity is mind-expanding" — things viewed from multiple perspectives can exhibit diverse and seemingly-contradictory properties — "The world is simple and complex, logical and weird, beautiful and chaotic. Fundamental understanding does not resolve those dualities."
There's much more detail on all these themes. Wilczek concludes with musings on humanity and humility, purpose and promise. All with a big serving of lovingkindness, on the largest scales.

(cf Mr. Wizard (2008-01-15), Einstein on Self (2010-01-31), Circle of Concern (2012-07-18), ...) - ^z - 2024-03-18

- Monday, March 18, 2024 at 20:47:06 (EDT)


Tzedakah — as described by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently:

... In Hebrew, the word for charity, tzedakah, is also the word for righteousness. Tzedakah is not simply about giving money away. It’s also the obligation to help others learn to help themselves. ...

... and as summarized in the Wikipedia article, the "Eight Levels of Giving", starting with the best:

  1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need, so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
  2. Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person or public fund that is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
  3. Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
  4. Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
  5. Giving tzedakah before being asked.
  6. Giving adequately after being asked.
  7. Giving willingly, but inadequately.
  8. Giving "in sadness" (giving out of pity) ...

... an excellent taxonomy!

(cf Concerning Charity (23003-12-22), Philanthropy and Charity (2010-03-28), ...) - ^z - 2024-03-04

- Monday, March 04, 2024 at 08:09:15 (EST)

How Are You Doing

"How Are You, Really?" by Dana Smith (NY Times 28 Feb 2024) poses important questions to ask oneself about emotional health:

Suggested exercises to help with areas of the above that might be challenging:
And remember not to blame self for outside forces:
Yes, the list is a bit long and the items overlap somewhat, but they're nonetheless excellent suggestions to consider as part of a life-inventory!

(cf Social Wealth (2005-05-18), The Meaning of Life (2008-07-24), This Is Water (2009-05-21), Models of Happiness (2012-01-05), Best Self (2013-12-14), Resilience Skills (2020-12-14), Retirement Mental Health Advice (2023-05-25), List of Questions to Generate Gratitude (2023-06-16), ...) - ^z - 2024-03-01

- Friday, March 01, 2024 at 06:44:13 (EST)

Free Book Time

If you’re not on guard,
your free time can easily
become someone else’s.

... thoughts about openness and choice and joy, via the metaphor of found books, in Sam Dolnick's essay "Discarded Gems" for the NY Times morning newsletter of 24 Feb 2024:

I have found a secret antidote to all that structure, a magic portal that has no clock or key. It is a neighborhood stoop, or rather, the discarded books that gather there. For you, maybe that translates into a bargain bin or a giveaway pile; wherever you can find books that are weathered, dog-eared and inscribed to someone else. They call out to me like porch lights to a bug.

Why do I love other people’s books? Because they carry no obligation and no expectations, unlike that novel weighing down my night stand, from a friend who insisted that I love it. Or that other one, that won an award I should care about. Or the one I’ve been halfway through for a year. If you’re not on guard, your free time can easily become someone else’s.

Found books, meanwhile, are blissfully dislocated from any hint of duty or “discourse.” They are deserted islands. Population: one.

Yes! – it's all about serendipity and discovery and adventure ...

(cf David Copperfield Book Escape (2006-05-15), Portrait of the Artist (2007-02-08), Dirda on Books (2013-09-17), ...) - ^z - 2024-02-24

- Saturday, February 24, 2024 at 07:18:09 (EST)

Mantra - Community, Health, Adventure, Purpose

Be a good CHAP!

Help others, be physically fit, seek novelty, and make a meaningful life – especially as one gets older – as suggested by author Caroline Paul, in her book on "How Outdoor Adventure Improves Our Lives as We Age". As Paul notes, "... we need these aspects of adventure, like vitality, exhilaration, exploration and a little bit of danger and awe in our lives ..." – and her recommendation that people strive for "... health, novelty, community and purpose ...".

(see Caroline Paul in "Why Adventure Should Be Part Of Your Healthy Aging Plan" and "My Mother Got on a Bike. It Changed Her Life."; cf CompactLiving (2007-03-18), No Goal (2015-03-01), Mantra - Safety, Health, Insight, Peace (2015-10-30), Happier and Healthier (2020-07-08), Scandinavian Health (2021-05-24), Good Life (2023-01-15), Designing Your Life (2023-08-08), Recovery to Health (2023-09-18), ...) - ^z - 2024-02-18

- Sunday, February 18, 2024 at 07:43:37 (EST)

Love for Imperfect Things

Haemin Sunim's book Love for Imperfect Things (2016, English translation with Deborah Smith in 2018) is gentle and kind, with lovely artwork (by Lisk Feng) and short essays followed by shorter prose-poetic aphorisms. Among the most touching-memorable bits:

... in Chapter 1, "Self-Care"

"Be good to yourself first, then to others."


It's okay not to be ranked
first, second, or even third.
Compare yourself not with others,
but with the old you.
Like yourself for making an honest effort.
And continue to have faith in yourself.

... in Chapter 2, "Family"

If you love someone,
rather than doing what you think they need,
do what they themselves ask you to do.
Though it comes from a good place,
doing what you think someone needs
can be the seed of wanting to control them,
to make them a certain way to please yourself.


With a little planning,
you can continue to enjoy your life
while looking after someone close to you.
Sacrificing yourself completely
won't be good in the long run,
not even for the person you're taking care of.
Only if you yourself are reasonably well
will you be able to look after someone properly.


If you want to help your child, your partner, or your friend,
simply listen without offering advice
or your own interpretation.
And empathize, imagining that you yourself
just had that experience.
Don't turn away from difficulties, but endure them together.
That is how you can be of greatest help.


If you give something your full attention,
whatever it is, and examine it closely,
it will come to attract your interest and care.
Just as the face of your child is the most familiar
and the loveliest thing in the world,
constant attention will turn an ordinary object
into an extraordinary one.

... and perhaps most important of all, "the quiet space between thoughts" as described in Chapter 7, "Enlightenment"

As my practice of mindful breathing deepens, the door of wisdom begins to open. People typically equate the mind with thoughts, as if thoughts are the only things there. However, once experiencing the peaceful silence that lies in the gap between one thought and the next, I see how a thought appears from that silence and also disappears into it by itself. Consequently, I don't attach too much importance to each thought but pay more attention to the quiet space in between thoughts. The space of silence then gradually expands, and I begin to feel that even a good thought is not as pleasant as the peaceful silence.

Eventually I come to realize that this peaceful silence exists not only inside my body, but outside it as well, as it is impossible to pinpoint precisely where the silence begins and ends. The conceptual division between the self and the world collapses, and I come to realize that the silence is the mind's unshakable true nature as well as the unmanifested ground of the universe before its creation. I finally come to understand the Zen proverb "There is no difference whatsoever among the mind, the world, and the Buddha."

And there are jokes! — e.g., in Chapter 6, "Healing":

"Is it appropriate for a monk to use email?"

"Sure, but only if there are no attachments!"

Sweet, thoughtful, and full of goodness!

(cf Coming to Our Senses (2009-01-01), Embracing Imperfection (2019-04-13), Tips for NQTs and Everybody Else (2020-06-24), Self-Care Matrix (2020-10-15), ...) - ^z - 2024-02-12

- Monday, February 12, 2024 at 21:30:14 (EST)

Drops Form an Ocean

Tom Hanks, interviewed in 2022 ("Tom Hanks Explains It All") by David Marchese, discusses why individual efforts for justice are essential:

... What is the point of trying to do the right thing when it’s just a drop in the ocean? But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? Things get better when a multitude of drops form an ocean and sweep things away. World War II: The Nazis were defeated, as was a Japanese empire, because enough good people said no. Civil rights came about because of, I think, an American belief that our responsibility as citizens is to work toward making a more perfect union. I don’t know if I’m answering your question but “There’s Hanks, he’s got a nostalgia for the way America used to be”: No. I have a fascination with the progress that America has made in all these incremental moments. That is an American sense of what is right and what is wrong. ...

(cf Human Nature (1999-12-05), Foam on the Ocean (2000-07-23), Constant Effort (2013-08-05), ...) - ^z - 2024-02-12

- Monday, February 12, 2024 at 20:36:06 (EST)

Modesty and Good Manners

A beautiful description of the young Isaiah Berlin's style of debate, in Michael Bonavia's (1990) London Before I Forget:

... The rapid, even flow of his ideas, the succession of confident references to authors [of] whom most of his contemporaries had never heard, left them mildly stupefied. Yet there was no backlash, no resentment at these breathless marathons, because Berlin's essential modesty and good manners eliminated jealousy and disarmed hostility. ...

(as cited in Wikipedia's current biographical article about Sir Isaiah Berlin; cf Isaiah Berlin (2005-11-24), Systematic Overestimate (2009-01-30), Good Manners and Taiji (2014-04-03), Inimitable Sir Isaiah Berlin (2019-04-11), ...) - ^z - 2024-02-06

- Tuesday, February 06, 2024 at 08:09:18 (EST)

Mental Landscape

Melissa Kirsch in her New York Times newsletter "The Morning" of 4 Feb 2024 muses about an Alastair Humphreys essay "A Single Small Map Is Enough For A Lifetime". British explorer-author Humphreys asked himself:

... With the climate in chaos, I can’t justify flying all over the globe for fun anymore, burning jet fuel and spewing carbon for selfies. It feels particularly inappropriate to write books that encourage everyone to get out and explore. If I love wild places so much, I’ve begun to wonder, am I willing to not visit them in order to help protect them?

And so he sought adventure closer to home:

What if this bog-standard corner of England was actually full of surprises if only I bothered to go out and look? Maybe the things I’ve chased from India to Iceland — adventure, nature, wildness, surprises, silence, perspective — were here too?

It's in the spirit, he said, of the late Terry Pratchett's philosophy, "The Importance of Being Amazed about Absolutely Everything". So Humphreys walked around the land within a seemingly-featureless square on a local map, and sees a "common reed":

... Family: grasses. Class: monocots. Kingdom: plants. Domain: eukaryotes. The sprawling immensity of life, too complex for me ever to grasp, had been ordered and tidied and simplified for this single plant in front of me: Phragmites australis.

There I stood on a damp path atop deep layers of late Mesozoic and Cenozoic sedimentary rocks, gawping at a common reeds, surrounded by multitudes. I could glimpse wonder and the connection between everyday observation and the curiosity that spins off into wider exploration of the cosmos. ...

This lead Humphreys further into the history of the area and its marvels. Melissa Kirsch concludes her morning commentary on the Awareness Enterprise with a leap into the mind:

A high-resolution map provides a satisfyingly orderly way to make sense of the environment, to catalog what’s here now and what was here before, to pay close attention to what’s going on in the world. Is there some kind of analog we could apply to our interior lives, territory that feels far more vast and ungoverned and in need of organization? Is there a way to shine a flashlight upon the disused bridleways of the mind?

Meditation suggests it might be possible, but the rapidity with which our internal terrain changes makes the possibility of any definitive guide all but impossible. This necessitates, I suppose, close attention. A commitment to visit and revisit our intimate landscapes, mapping and remapping the contours of home.

(cf What We Know (2006-08-15), Full Moon Metaphors (2007-10-29), Verlyn Klinkenborg (2008-07-11), Abject Reptile (2008-07-29), Specificity (2009-05-31), Turning Attention Inward (2011-04-17), Pay Attention (2013-12-05), Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (2015-10-24), Mantra - Attention, Attention, Attention (2017-05-27), Attention Means Attention (2019-09-18), ...) - ^z - 2024-02-04

- Sunday, February 04, 2024 at 12:39:20 (EST)

Little Book of Aliens

Adam Frank is creative, kind, delightful, and precise (to borrow some of the words he uses to describe his teacher, Bruce Balick). His The Little Book of Aliens leaps into some of the biggest and most important (and least understood) questions that humanity faces. Are we alone in the universe? What other forms of life could there be? Where are they? How can we know? What would the existence (or nonexistence) of alien intelligences tell us about ourselves? Why are we here?

Little Book is great fun; there's at least one beer joke every chapter, along with silly self-deprecating asides. Prof Frank is accurate in his science and artful in his explanations. Chapter 7, for instance, offers a lovely nutshell-dense explanation of chemistry and biology. And as an example of Frank's style, consider this fragment from Chapter 6:

OK, now on to planetary atmospheres.

By analyzing starlight that has traversed an exoplanet's atmosphere, astronomers can nail down exactly what the atmosphere is made of. If there are absorption lines of water in the starlight's spectrum, then there's water vapor in the planet's atmosphere. If there are absorption lines of carbon dioxide, then there's carbon dioxide in the planet's atmosphere. This process is called atmospheric characterization. It is even more of a scientific miracle, and I'm not letting us move on until we properly genuflect at its awesomeness.

Sitting here on Earth, an astronomer can figure out exactly what's in a planet's atmosphere even if that planet is tens, hundreds, or thousands of light-years away. Thanks to this radical new method, we can see exactly what's floating around in the atmospheres of planets that may never, ever be visited by a human. It is totally insane and amazing that we Homo sapiens, basically just a bunch of hairless monkeys, have figured out how to probe distant alien atmospheres. If nothing else, this achievement should make you a little bit proud of us as a species in spite of all the other horrible stuff we do.

Now let's get back to the story.

Atmospheric characterization is a big deal by itself because ...

Bottom line: in the past few decades, advances in observational astronomy have begun to provide real data on planets orbiting other stars — a huge leap forward in understanding the likelihood of life elsewhere in the galaxy. What will we learn tomorrow? Wow!

(cf Edge of the Universe (1999-06-08), Fast Forward (2002-02-21), Ron Bracewell (2004-01-21), What We Know (2006-08-15), Little Book of Cosmology (2023-03-31), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-28

- Sunday, January 28, 2024 at 19:30:23 (EST)


John Bogle (1929-2019) founded the Vanguard Group of low-cost mutual funds and popularized index funds for simple, efficient investing. His wisdom is shared by "Bogleheads", an informal group of investors. Their forum offers excellent advice to help optimize a life well-lived, with safety, comfort, compassion, and grace. In a nutshell:

That's the big picture; details and suggestions for implementation are elsewhere. Wonderful thoughts to enable a good financial life!

(cf Money Wisdom (2001-05-20), Bubble Busters (2002-02-06), Second Largest Investment (2005-08-09), Shiller Price Earnings Ratio (2021-03-29), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-28

- Sunday, January 28, 2024 at 08:21:40 (EST)

Getting Unstuck

"Feeling Stuck? Here Are 5 Ways to Jumpstart Your Life." by Christina Caron suggests:

... good thoughts, especially the second and the fifth!

(cf My Business (1999-05-20), My Religion (2000-11-06), Purpose of Life (2009-01-28), Beginning Mindfulness (2013-09-22), The Heart of Buddhism (2015-01-10), On Good Form (2015-02-08), Equanimity and Magnanimity (2015-02-19), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-27

- Saturday, January 27, 2024 at 21:48:56 (EST)

Awe and Wonder

Awe is big these days. The Los Angeles Times article "Feeling drained? Here’s how to rediscover your childlike wonder" by Julia Carmel summarizes half a dozen good ways to shrink self and expand the universe, with many citations to Dachel Keltner's book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life:

... good suggestions, with some similarities to Meik Weiking's The Art of Making Memories ... and to comments by Ralph Waldo Emerson

(cf How Great Thou Art (2005-03-16), Seeing Nature (2005-07-19), Miracles and Wonders (2007-03-31), This Is Water (2009-05-21), Mantra - Help, Thanks, Wow (2015-01-06), Numinous (2020-08-09), Awe Walk (2020-10-04), Awesomeness (2023-02-25), Seek Out Awe (2023-07-01), Art of Making Memories (2024-01-17), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-18

- Friday, January 19, 2024 at 17:57:10 (EST)

Art of Making Memories

The Art of Making Memories (2019) by Meik Wiking feels thin despite its thickness (288 pages, but small format and lots of pictures). Its advice is reasonable, and is summarized in the chapter titles and the two page cartoon "The Memory Manifesto: 8 Ingredients for Happy Memories" on pps 14-15:

Nice enough, but largely obvious. Lots of personal anecdotes from the author's past. Overall, alas, not terribly memorable for a book devoted to making memories!

(cf GeoMemory (2001-05-17), Plastic Memory (2001-07-10), Medallic Memories (2004-08-22), Fond Memories Remain (2008-11-25), Magazine Memories (2012-12-17), Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013-10-24), Mantra - Good Moments and Good Memories (2015-08-09), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-17

- Wednesday, January 17, 2024 at 21:03:37 (EST)

Red Queen

The Red Queen, subtitled "Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature", by Matt Ridley (1993), is a general-audiences book about evolutionary biology. It focuses on the "Red Queen Hypothesis", a theory named for a line in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." Similarly Darwinian evolution, in competition with one's fellow creatures, often seems to be an escalating series of moves, countermeasures, and counter-countermeasures.

Ridley's book has many powerful ideas in it — along with occasional poor statistics, just-so stories, a somewhat parochial Northern European focus, and dramatic claims. He slips up, for instance, in Chapter 4:

... For example, merely by ceasing to breed once they have a boy—which those interested in dynastic succession might do—people would have male-biased sex ratios at birth. ...

No! That's a common mathematical fallacy. But on the other hand, in most of The Red Queen Ridley offers solid arguments. He describes his charter in Chapter 1:

... Human nature is a product of culture, but culture is also a product of human nature, and both are the products of evolution. This does not mean that I am going to argue that it is “all in our genes.” Far from it. I am vigorously going to challenge the notion that anything psychological is purely genetic, and equally vigorously challenge the assumption that anything universally human is untainted by genes. But our “culture” does not have to be the way it is. Human culture could be very much more varied and surprising than it is. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, live in promiscuous societies in which females seek as many sexual partners as possible and a male will kill the infants of strange females with whom he has not mated. There is no human society that remotely resembles this particular pattern. Why not? Because human nature is different from chimp nature.

If this is so, then the study of human nature must have profound implications for the study of history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and politics. Each of those disciplines is an attempt to understand human behavior, and if the underlying universals of human behavior are the product of evolution, then it is vitally important to understand what the evolutionary pressures were. Yet I have gradually come to realize that almost all of social science proceeds as if 1859, the year of the publication of the Origin of Species, had never happened; it does so quite deliberately, for it insists that human culture is a product of our own free will and invention. Society is not the product of human psychology, it asserts, but vice versa.

That sounds reasonable enough, and it would be splendid for those who believe in social engineering if it were true, but it is simply not true. ...

... and later in Chapter 1:

Just as parasites depend on their hosts and yet make them suffer, and just as animals exploit their mates and yet need them, so the Red Queen never appears without another theme being sounded: the theme of intermingled cooperation and conflict. The relationship between a mother and her child is fairly straightforward: Both are seeking roughly the same goal—the welfare of themselves and each other. The relationship between a man and his wife’s lover or between a woman and her rival for a promotion is also fairly straightforward: Both want the worst for each other. One relationship is all about cooperation, the other all about conflict. But what is the relationship between a woman and her husband? It is cooperation in the sense that both want the best for the other. But why? In order to exploit each other. A man uses his wife to produce children for him. A woman uses her husband to make and help rear her children. Marriage teeters on the line between a cooperative venture and a form of mutual exploitation—ask any divorce lawyer. Successful marriages so submerge the costs under mutual benefits that the cooperation can predominate; unsuccessful ones do not.

This is one of the great recurring themes of human history, the balance between cooperation and conflict. It is the obsession of governments and families, of lovers and rivals. It is the key to economics. It is, as we shall see, one of the oldest themes in the history of life, for it is repeated right down to the level of the gene itself. And the principal cause of it is sex. Sex, like marriage, is a cooperative venture between two rival sets of genes. Your body is the scene of this uneasy coexistence.

At the end of Chapter 7 Ridley summarizes:

There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gatherers, but deep in the mind of the modern man is a simple male hunter-gatherer rule: Strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs; strive to acquire wealth and use it to buy other men’s wives who will bear bastards. It began with a man who shared a piece of prized fish or honey with an attractive neighbor’s wife in exchange for a brief affair and continues with a pop star ushering a model into his Mercedes. From fish to Mercedes, the history is unbroken: via skins and beads, plows and cattle, swords and castles. Wealth and power are means to women; women are means to genetic eternity.

Likewise, deep in the mind of a modern woman is the same basic hunter-gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: Strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest food and care in your children; strive to find a lover who can give those children first-class genes. Only if she is very lucky will they be the same man. It began with a woman who married the best unmarried hunter in the tribe and had an affair with the best married hunter, thus ensuring her children a rich supply of meat. It continues with a rich tycoon’s wife bearing a baby that grows up to resemble her beefy bodyguard. Men are to be exploited as providers of parental care, wealth, and genes.

Cynical? Not half as cynical as most accounts of human history.

In Chapter 9 Ridley returns to the tug-of-war between morality and instinct:

If I am right and people are just animals with more than usually trainable instincts, then it might seem that I am excusing instinctive behavior. When a man kills another man or tries to seduce a woman, he is just being true to his nature. What a bleak, amoral message. Surely there is a more natural basis for morality in the human psyche than that? The centuries-old debate between the followers of Rousseau and Hobbes—whether we are corrupted noble savages or civilized brutes—has missed the point. We are instinctive brutes, and some of our instincts are unsavory. Of course some instincts are very much more moral, and the vast human capacity for altruism and generosity—the glue that has always held society together—is just as natural as any selfishness. Yet selfish instincts are there, too. Men are much more instinctively capable of murder and of sexual promiscuity than women, for example. But Hobbes’s vindication means nothing because instincts combine with learning. None of our instincts is inevitable; none is insuperable. Morality is never based upon nature. It never assumes that people are angels or that the things it asks human beings to do come naturally. “Thou shalt not kill” is not a gentle reminder but a fierce injunction to men to overcome any instincts they may have or face punishment.

Ridley ends Chapter 10 with his summary:

... Some of the best arguments, such as Fisher’s theory of runaway sexual selection, are circular. The relationship between chickens and eggs is circular. Miller is actually rather proud of the theory’s circularity because he believes we have learned from computer simulation that evolution is a process which pulls itself up by its bootstraps. There is no single cause and effect because effects can reinforce causes. If a bird finds itself to be good at cracking seeds, then it specializes in cracking seeds, which puts further pressure on its seed-cracking ability to evolve.

Evolution is circular. It is a disquieting thought that our heads contain a neurological version of a peacock’s tail—an ornament designed for sexual display whose virtuosity at everything from calculus to sculpture is perhaps just a side effect of the ability to charm. Disquieting and yet not altogether convincing. The sexual selection of the human mind is the most speculative and fragile of the many evolutionary theories discussed in this book, but it is also very much in the same vein as the others. I began this book by asking why all human beings were so similar and yet so different, suggesting that the answer lay in the unique alchemy of sex. An individual is unique because of the genetic variety that sexual reproduction generates in its perpetual chess tournament with disease. An individual is a member of a homogeneous species because of the incessant mixing of that variety in the pool of fellow human beings’ genes. And I end with one of the strangest of the consequences of sex: that the choosiness of human beings in picking their mates has driven the human mind into a history of frenzied expansion for no reason except that wit, virtuosity, inventiveness, and individuality turn other people on. ...

And in the Epilogue he signs off with:

Mankind is a self-domesticated animal; a mammal; an ape; a social ape; an ape in which the male takes the initiative in courtship and females usually leave the society of their birth; an ape in which men are predators, women herbivorous foragers; an ape in which males are relatively hierarchical, females relatively egalitarian; an ape in which males contribute unusually large amounts of investment in the upbringing of their offspring by provisioning their mates and their children with food, protection, and company; an ape in which monogamous pair bonds are the rule but many males have affairs and occasional males achieve polygamy; an ape in which females mated to low-ranking males often cuckold their husbands in order to gain access to the genes of higher-ranking males; an ape that has been subject to unusually intense mutual sexual selection so that many of the features of the female body (lips, breasts, waists) and the mind of both sexes (songs, competitive ambition, status seeking) are designed for use in competition for mates; an ape that has developed an extraordinary range of new instincts to learn by association, to communicate by speech, and to pass on traditions. But still an ape.

Half the ideas in this book are probably wrong. ...

True! – yet close to half are perhaps right!

(cf Light of Evolution (2006-04-24), Brief History of the Female Body (2023-10-29), History of Sex (2023-11-20), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-16

- Tuesday, January 16, 2024 at 14:00:11 (EST)

How to End a Toxic Relationship

"How to end a toxic relationship" by Gunnur Karakurt and Rachel Croce has thoughtful suggestions about awareness and action when someone is in a bad situation. Their summary:

  1. Learn to distinguish healthy from toxic relationships. A healthy relationship involves feeling accepted and secure. A toxic relationship causes chronic emotional and/or physical harm.
  2. Take stock of your own relationship. If you have a nagging feeling that something is seriously off, it’s important that you slow down and look at what’s going on.
  3. Know the red flags. These range from microaggressions to financial control to gaslighting to violence.
  4. If you’re worried, ask these questions. If you think your relationship might be toxic, dig deeper by asking yourself questions such as ‘Who says “no” to what in your relationship?’ and ‘Does your partner seem too good to be true?’
  5. Do something about your situation. If it’s safe to do so, speak up clearly and honestly about your concerns, develop coping strategies, and prepare to deal with feelings of guilt.
  6. If you need to get out, create a safety plan. If your partner is volatile, take the risks seriously and plan your exit carefully. This includes having a safe place to go and stay.
... with additional commentary along the way about having respect for each other, about sharing one's challenges with close friends, about maintaining self-esteem and resilience, and about the virtue of building "... a sense of agency and autonomy outside of the relationship ..." — including:

... It’s also appropriate to have friendships separate from your partner and to obtain support from them that your partner is unable to give you. You and your partner alone cannot meet all of each other’s needs. The key is that there exists both separateness and a sense of connection with your partner. Trust and boundaries are important to achieving this. ...

Excellent thoughts to help in scary and complex circumstances!

(cf When Someone You Love Is Unhappy (2011-05-29), Relationship Repair (2022-03-09), You Are Brave (2022-03-30), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-14

- Sunday, January 14, 2024 at 07:33:33 (EST)

How to Embrace Uncertainty

"How to embrace uncertainty" by Prof Arie Kruglanski is a useful discussion of psychological issues around ambiguity, openness, optimism, "cognitive closure", and a constellation of related topics. The author's summary:

  1. Uncertain situations are inevitable. From waiting for a call back to anticipating important test results, everyone faces situations with uncertain outcomes. Not knowing what will happen can be challenging.
  2. Uncertainty doesn’t have to be so daunting. Many people worry intensely about or try to escape uncertain situations. But developing a more optimistic outlook and learning to tolerate uncertainty can make these situations easier to face.
  3. Be your own defence attorney. Reflecting on past failures or disappointments, identify reasons for each outcome that were unique to that situation — rather than reflecting a permanent problem.
  4. Develop a ‘can do’ attitude. Think of situations with uncertain outcomes as challenges to be met — and list specific ways to overcome the difficulties they pose.
  5. Devise alternatives. Reduce your emotional dependence on the outcomes of uncertain situations by listing alternative courses of action that you can take if the worst were to happen.
  6. Practise mindfulness. Take some time to simply observe the thoughts and feelings that an uncertain situation brings up. Cultivate a more relaxed state of mind with regular mindfulness meditation.

(cf Optimist Creed (1999-04-16), Negative Thinking Patterns (2015-08-28), Power of Optimism (2016-02-23), More Optimism (2023-05-27), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-13

- Saturday, January 13, 2024 at 16:53:27 (EST)

When We Cease to Understand the World

Madness ... mirrors ... murders ... and maybe a prose-poem about the mistakes and masterpieces of modern mathematics, physics, and chemistry? Benjamín Labatut's 2020 short novel When We Cease to Understand the World has elements of all those. It's a dreamlike depiction of historical and fictional events. Wonderful writing, confusing and cautionary. Scary in spots. Increasingly crude as it progresses into insanity. Amazingly accurate in its scientific sections. Better if it had been half as long?

(see reviews and commentary in the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker; cf Quantum Nondemolition (2000-02-05), Power Distortion (2001-02-12), Prophetic Uncertainty Principle (2004-05-29), Schrodinger's Catastrophe (2008-01-26), Alternative Paths (2017-01-15), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-10

- Wednesday, January 10, 2024 at 08:54:11 (EST)

Animals and Language

"The Animals Are Talking. What Does It Mean?" in the New York Times magazine (20 Sep 2023) by Sonia Shah features lovely illustrations by Denise Nestor. The article's theme is language — and whether (or to what extent) humans differ from (other) animals in communicating and thinking via symbolic abstraction.

Shah's summary of the subject:

But the rudimentary skills of mice suggested that the language-critical capacity might exist on a continuum, much like a submerged land bridge might indicate that two now-isolated continents were once connected. In recent years, an array of findings have also revealed an expansive nonhuman soundscape, including: turtles that produce and respond to sounds to coordinate the timing of their birth from inside their eggs; coral larvae that can hear the sounds of healthy reefs; and plants that can detect the sound of running water and the munching of insect predators. Researchers have found intention and meaning in this cacophony, such as the purposeful use of different sounds to convey information. They’ve theorized that one of the most confounding aspects of language, its rules-based internal structure, emerged from social drives common across a range of species.

With each discovery, the cognitive and moral divide between humanity and the rest of the animal world has eroded. For centuries, the linguistic utterances of Homo sapiens have been positioned as unique in nature, justifying our dominion over other species and shrouding the evolution of language in mystery. Now, experts in linguistics, biology and cognitive science suspect that components of language might be shared across species, illuminating the inner lives of animals in ways that could help stitch language into their evolutionary history — and our own.

Other creatures share key genes that enable human speech (e.g., FoxP2). They have common anatomical structures to generate and modulate air vibrations. They have similar neural circuits "to learn and produce novel sounds".

Squabbles continued over which components of language were shared with other species and which, if any, were exclusive to humans. Those included, among others, language’s intentionality, its system of combining signals, its ability to refer to external concepts and things separated by time and space and its power to generate an infinite number of expressions from a finite number of signals. But reflexive belief in language as an evolutionary anomaly started to dissolve. ...

Experiments with symbol-codes "... suggest that language’s mystical power — its ability to turn the noise of random signals into intelligible formulations — may have emerged from a humble trade-off: between simplicity, for ease of learning, and ... 'expressiveness,' for unambiguous communication."

And there's room for strange syntax:

... the communication systems of other species might, in fact, be “truly exotic to us,” ... A species that can recognize objects by echolocation, as cetaceans and bats can, might communicate using acoustic pictographs, for example, which might sound to us like meaningless chirps or clicks. To disambiguate the meaning of animal signals, such as a string of dolphin clicks or whalesong, scientists needed some inkling of where meaning-encoding units began and ended ... If scientists analyze animal calls using the wrong segmentation, meaningful expressions turn into meaningless drivel: “ad ogra naway” instead of “a dog ran away.”

Seems like we're all One on this funny planet ...

(cf Key to the Treasure (2004-04-23), Other Minds (2023-10-12), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-08

- Monday, January 08, 2024 at 09:13:48 (EST)

Seven Keys to Longevity

Dana Smith's article "The Seven Keys to Longevity" summarizes great wisdom for health at any age:

  1. Move more — keep your body active – "... The best exercise is any activity you enjoy doing and will stick with ..."
  2. Eat more fruits and vegetables — and don't worry too much about weight
  3. Get enough sleep — "... especially important for brain health ..."
  4. Don’t smoke, and don’t drink too much either
  5. Manage your chronic conditions
  6. Prioritize your relationships — "... strong relationships are the biggest predictor of well-being ..."
  7. Cultivate a positive mind-set

Bottom line:

If you had to pick one healthy practice for longevity, “do some version of physical activity,” Dr. Moore said. “If you can’t do that, then focus on being positive.”

(cf Optimist Creed (1999-04-16), Happier and Healthier (2020-07-08), Ikigai (2020-07-18), Awe Walk (2020-10-04), Scandinavian Health (2021-05-24), Retirement Mental Health Advice (2023-05-25), Longevity List (2023-09-17), ...) - ^z - 2024-01-04

- Thursday, January 04, 2024 at 08:37:54 (EST)

Putting Ourselves Back in the Equation

Putting Ourselves Back in the Equation (2023) by George Musser is subtitled "Why Physicists are Studying Human Consciousness and AI to Unravel the Mysteries of the Universe". It's a bit first-person, a bit physics-arrogant, a bit anecdotal — and also appropriately skeptical about recent technical work on "the Hard Problem" of understanding how matter and mind can coexist. Along the way, there are marvelous asides, like this glimpse of how Karl Friston (professor at University College London) thinks about things:

... Friston's daily routine harnesses a psychiatrist's awareness of how brains work. Before bed, he reviews his notes on whatever problem he is working on, so that his subconscious can turn it over in his sleep. In the morning, he sits for two or three hours with his pipe, no paper, no phone, just thinking. Confining the problem to his working memory allows him to focus solely on its essence. Only when he has a solution does he pick up a pencil. "You really have to drill down deep to what you can solve," he said. ...

Musser discusses two leading theories of mind, "predictive coding" and "integrated information theory":

... Both theories are mathematically meaty, built on simple principles, and grand in scope—in a word, physics-y. Both view the brain as a special type of neural network and, like theories of neural networks in general, are based as much on physics as on biology. Both draw on physics concepts such as energy and causality. Both look beyond the particulars of human biology to seek the qualities of consciousness in other animals, in machines, in collectives, in inanimate matter—in anything, really. Both theories make debatable philosophical assumptions, but they align with most physicists' gut feeling that consciousness is a collective or emergent property.

Both, too, invert our usual conception of ourselves. It may seem to us that we have direct, unfiltered access to the wider world, but, in truth, each of us lives in a world of our own making. What we see and sense is a hallucination; it is actively generated by the brain. We recognize it as a hallucination only when it slips its leash—when the brain somehow fails to recalibrate our private world to match the evidence of our senses.

Both theories also have plenty of skeptics and could be utterly wrong. ...

Putting Ourselves Back also reviews quantum mechanical theories, cosmological speculations, and other physics-centric approaches to explaining consciousnessness. All likely incorrect; many likely to offer insight. Good!

(cf Man of Mystery (2004-08-12), Hard, Hard Problem (2021-03-21), Being You (2023-11-01), ...) - ^z - 2023-12-20

- Wednesday, December 20, 2023 at 09:41:29 (EST)

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye

A. S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: five fairy stories overflows with magical metaphorical mysteries. It's a delight to read, like Lewis Carroll, like Peter Beagle, like Richard Adams, like (early) Salman Rushdie. From the title novella, an example:

... She took it out of its wrappings — it was really very dusty, almost clay-encrusted — and carried it into the bathroom, where she turned on the mixer-tap in the basin, made the water warm, blood-heat, and held the bottle under the jet, turning it round and round. The glass became blue, threaded with opaque white canes, cobalt-blue, darkly bright, gleaming and wonderful. She turned it and turned it, rubbing the tenacious dust-spots with thumbs and fingers, and suddenly it gave a kind of warm leap in her hand, like a frog, like a still-beating heart in the hands of a surgeon. She gripped and clasped and steadied, and her own heart took a fierce, fast beat of apprehension, imagining blue glass splinters everywhere. But all that happened was that the stopper, with a faint glassy grinding, suddenly flew out of the neck of the flask and fell, tinkling but unbroken, into the basin. And out of the bottle in her hands came a swarming, an exhalation, a fast-moving dark stain which made a high-pitched buzzing sound and smelled of woodsmoke, of cinnamon, of sulphur, of something that might have been incense, of something that was not leather, but was? The dark cloud gathered and turned and flew in a great paisley or comma out of the bathroom. I am seeing things, thought Dr Perholt, following, and found she could not follow, for the bathroom door was blocked by what she slowly made out to be an enormous foot, a foot with five toes as high as she was, surmounted by yellow horny toenails, a foot encased in skin that was olive-coloured, laced with gold, like snakeskin, not scaly but somehow mailed. It was between transparent and solid. Gillian put out a hand. It was palpable, and very hot to the touch, not hot as a coal but considerably hotter than the water in which she had been washing the bottle. It was dry and slightly electric. A vein beat inside the ankle, a green-gold tube encasing an almost emerald liquid. ...

So rich in shocking, original, beautiful images! (And, unlike the recently read Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker, the naughty bits in Byatt's storytelling are lovely and loving, not crude or pervy.)

(cf Nimbus Halo Glory Aureole (2001-11-15), Oceans of Notions (2001-12-10), Ankh Micholi (2002-07-12), Last Unicorn (2007-05-18), Alice in Wonderland (2008-03-22), Winter's Tale (2014-10-24), Golem and Jinni (2016-06-10), ...) - ^z - 2023-12-19

- Tuesday, December 19, 2023 at 15:56:55 (EST)

God, Human, Animal, Machine

The 2021 book God, Human, Animal, Machine by Meghan O'Gieblyn — subtitled "technology, metaphor, and the search for meaning" — is a heavily first-person extended musing about mind, religion, philosophy, and artificial intelligence. It's well-written, thoughtful, and raises excellent questions, especially about overly-simplistic transhumanism and other popular positions among folks who haven't looked far into the history of these topics. The newest New Idea isn't always (or even often) the Last Word! O'Gieblyn is fun to read, quirky, and full of things to argue with, or about.

(cf Thoughtful Metaphors (2000-11-08), Mind Children (2003-04-17), Limits of Introspection (2011-10-27), Conceptual Metaphor (2012-06-19), Being You (2023-11-01), ...) - ^z - 2023-12-19

- Tuesday, December 19, 2023 at 06:10:12 (EST)

Scooter - by Ed Covannon

I had seen it done
on television.
An episode of “Little Rascals.”

A roller skate.
An orange crate.
A two-by-four.
A hammer.
Banging and, voila.

I found:
a roller skate,
an orange crate,
a two-by-four,
and a hammer.

I banged like crazy.

They had not shown

Film editing for comedy is not
the same as editing for instruction.

I could not hammer the pieces
into a scooter
without the nails.

I could only hammer the pieces
into a heap.

Watch for the absences
in every conversation, article, and essay.
In them hide tears.

by Edward Covannon, Creative Commons Attribution - ^z - 2023-12-15

- Friday, December 15, 2023 at 12:04:05 (EST)

Wolves - by Ed Covannon

The wolves prowl.
Never far.
Two of them
A black male
A white female

They are not mine.
But I feed them
Even when the Arctic winds howl
and the sky is black
with blizzard.

As long as I am fearless,
as long as I am
they accept
my gifts.

They come to me.
They leave.
This makes me smile.
Except for them,
I am alone.

The black
I can fight and perhaps

The white
is always watching.

They will decide.

They will sense
what I cannot.

That it’s time.

by Edward Covannon, Creative Commons Attribution - ^z - 2023-12-15

- Friday, December 15, 2023 at 12:02:34 (EST)

Treasures - by Ed Covannon

The village knew the invaders were coming.
They dug pits big as coffins...

Beneath the pits, they dug deeper holes,
Into these holes, they poured their treasures.

This being a village of magicians, the treasures were all enchanted.
The very earth seethed with their power.

They covered these deeper holes.
Above them, they placed plain, empty, wood coffins.

They left.

Every one.

Not a dog, cat, cow, horse, goat, pig or bird was left.
Every single one — gone.

The invaders came.
Happy, at first, at the silence.

At first, but as they marched, someone noticed there were as many coffins as invaders.
Just as many.

Not one more.
Not one less.

by Edward Covannon, Creative Commons Attribution - ^z - 2023-12-15

- Friday, December 15, 2023 at 11:59:08 (EST)

Imagine a Poem - by Ed Covannon

imagine a poem
imagine it’s called “Yevtushenko”

imagine it’s in the form of a table
imagine columns

a null column and a null row
the row at the top and null columns separating all the columns for:

names - gender - gender behaviors - languages - beliefs - disabilities - races - interests - ages - cultures - countries - locations - …

imagine as many columns as you like
imagine as many rows as you like

imagine rules next
imagine a rule being you must draw horizontal lines through the cells in all the columns

this is not the poem
what you feel looking at the lines you’ve drawn is the poem

the poem is as small as one person
the poem is as big as the world

the poem is joy
the poem is grief

imagine another poem
imagine a column of all the things you’re feeling making the first poem

imagine a column of all the things you’ve felt
imagine a column of all the things you will feel

imagine a line through what you felt with each poem you create
imagine how you would feel looking at this line


by Edward Covannon, Creative Commons Attribution - ^z - 2023-12-15

- Friday, December 15, 2023 at 11:52:12 (EST)

Three Prayers - by Ed Covannon

In the spirit of sharing a benediction before a special dinner:

Thanksgiving Prayer

O' holy and merciful i hope, Lord:

Please help all of us open our hearts and just be grateful for our family, friends, neighbors, country, and our world.

Lord, in whose sight all life is equal.

Christmas Prayer

O' holy and merciful i hope, Lord:

Please keep me from all forms of burnout.

Please make me smarter, wiser and more imaginative.

Open my heart to love and respect for everyone and closed to fury — except those who earn something different —

Please keep me from hopelessness and end times despair about the human race.
Remind me always that the decision is, and always will be, yours and yours alone,

Don’t let me forget that “change” is the law.

Keep me from being an asshole

Lord in whose sight all life is equal

New Year's Prayer

O' holy and merciful i hope, Lord:

Please, remind me that any way that honors and worships you is — honoring and worshipping you.

Help me remember that a smile and affability do not balance out my being an asshole other times.

Help me remember that incorporating my faith in government, though I believe it is the “True Faith,” only leads to offense and oppression.

Help me remember that those unlike me still have the same protected freedoms, liberties, and rights I enjoy — until they break the law.

Help me choose evidence-based decisions — and not cherry-pick the evidence.
Please keep reminding me that belief doesn’t fix cars or countries.

Give me strength to not waver from allegiance to God, duty, honor, country.

Lord, in whose eyes all life is equal.

by Edward Covannon, Creative Commons Attribution - ^z - 2023-12-15

- Friday, December 15, 2023 at 11:44:59 (EST)

Emptiness, Hope, Silence, Humility

"The Mystical Catholic Tradition of Jon Fosse" is a fascinating discussion of themes in the writings of the 2023 Nobel Prize winner for literature. Author Christopher Beha describes Jon Fosse's work in terms of emptiness, hope, silence, and humility — e.g., this quote from Septology:

“… life isn’t something you can understand, and death isn’t either, actually to put it in other words it’s like in a weird way both life and death are things you can understand but not with thoughts …”

Beha concludes:

“… It may be that those who feel most powerfully the presence of God in their lives likewise feel most powerfully the impossibility of adequately capturing that presence in words. And it may be that those for whom God is not a symbol or a cudgel but a lived reality find this reality most mysterious. …”

Much to ponder in this.

(NYT gift-link; cf Tolerance and Pacifism (2001-10-08), Place of Conversion (2020-08-07), Michael Gerson, R.I.P. (2022-11-19), ... ) - ^z - 2023-12-09

- Saturday, December 09, 2023 at 20:12:36 (EST)

Quiet and a Less Full Plate

Quiet and a
Less Full Plate

... what a dear, wise, fragile friend suggested would do the most to help her ...

(cf Finding the Quiet (2009-12-05), Calm Technique (2011-05-07), Mantra - Without Effort, Analysis, or Expectation (2015-02-21), ...) - ^z - 2023-12-05

- Tuesday, December 05, 2023 at 15:16:05 (EST)

Helped, Heard, or Hugged

Do you want to be
helped, heard or hugged?

The New York Times essay by Jancee Dunn, "When Someone You Love Is Upset, Ask This One Question", suggests that "Helped, Heard, or Hugged?" is a skillful way to characterize what somebody needs:

... since sometimes people want assistance in problem-solving, sometimes they need to vent, and sometimes they just crave a reminder that they are loved!

(cf Twenty Second Hugs (2023-08-15), ...) - ^z - 2023-12-01

- Friday, December 01, 2023 at 12:46:14 (EST)

Book of Animal Ignorance

Trivia tidbits on a hundred species of beasts – that's what The Book of Animal Ignorance is about. It's by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, who offer a couple of pages of factoids on creatures alphabetized from aardvark to worm. There are cute cartoons, sidebars, historical anecdotes, asides on husbandry, and lots of mildly risqué details of reproductive physiology and practices. Entertaining, light, well-written, fast, fun.

(cf Abject Reptile (2008-07-29), Rural Life (2009-08-26), Ayotochtli (2022-10-09), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-25

- Saturday, November 25, 2023 at 20:55:02 (EST)

Perpetual Aspirations

(cf Pause and Breathe (2014-07-25), Aspiration, not Expectation (2014-12-12), Learning to Pause (2015-08-10), Aspire without Attachment (2015-12-28), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-21

- Tuesday, November 21, 2023 at 08:08:20 (EST)

History of Sex

Some fascinating books about zoology, the biological evolution of gender, comparative primate physiology, human culture and customs, sexual selection, sociobiology, and other aspects of life on this planet:

... the idea of microbial sexuality did not enter their thinking. That changed in 1904, when Albert Francis Blakeslee (1874–1954) obtained his PhD at Harvard working on the bread mold, Mucor mucedo. ... The work earned him a fellowship to travel to Germany, where he spent two years at Halle studying fungi. He much enjoyed those years except for one incident when he was arrested for sweeping horse manure into a paper bag. The policeman saw mischief afoot and Blakeslee could not convince him that he was sweeping up manure to look for new varieties of fungi. ...

... as well as more general musings about complexity and fragility:

Chapter 17:

Life can be resilient and vulnerable at the same time. We rejoice at stories of Olympic medalists who overcome severe injury or a childhood marked with tragedy. At the same time, nature can dish out genetic disorders resulting in births incompatible with life — severely limiting in organ function or leaving an adult with chronic illness. What makes life so vulnerable is the nature of genetic material. Something as simple as altering or removing one nucleotide pair out of some three billion present in a sperm or an egg can result in one of those debilitating or lethal genetic conditions. That doesn’t happen if one pulls a single brick out of a multistoried building. It won’t collapse no matter where that brick is removed. ...

... what wonders exist on this Earth!

(cf Light of Evolution (2006-04-24), Darwin on the Face of Nature (2006-09-01), Darwin on the Tree of Life (2006-10-01), Darwin in Conclusion (2007-01-05), Herodotus Misunderstands Evolution (2007-06-02), Brief History of the Female Body (2023-10-29), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-20

- Monday, November 20, 2023 at 20:57:08 (EST)

Financial Functions

How to think better about long-term budgetary issues? Maybe define a couple of simple financial functions. Let A = assets ($), I = income ($/year), and S = spending ($/year). Then:

Thus, one might estimate, "We can keep spending at our current rate for 5 years, after which we will have to cut back to 80%." That puts things into a more useful perspective, and clarifies the timescale and amount of thrift needed during temporary tough times. It doesn't consider changes over time in price levels, varying tax brackets, interest rates, etc — but for most purposes, in ordinary circumstances it gets into the right ballpark. Useful!

(cf Money, Mechanism, Meaning (2001-02-15), Money Wisdom (2001-05-20), No Retrenchment (2002-08-25), Improving Trend (2010-02-08), Shiller Price Earnings Ratio (2021-03-29), Harry Browne Rules of Financial Safety (2019-12-24), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-15

- Wednesday, November 15, 2023 at 11:00:23 (EST)

Bookshops and Bonedust

Like Legends and Lattes, Travis Baldree's prequel novel Bookshops and Bonedust follows orc-warrior Viv as she grows and learns and becomes a better person. There's beautiful prose, plot twists aplenty, and characters who come alive. Echoes of Terry Pratchett ricochet through some scenes; others are delightfully unique. A bakery and a bookstore — along with monsters and wizards and a bit of obliquely hinted passion — what's not to like?

(cf Legends and Lattes (2023-04-05), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-10

- Friday, November 10, 2023 at 22:45:03 (EST)

Wilmer Mills, R.I.P.

Poet Wilmer Mills died in 2011 of liver cancer. Poetry magazine editor Don Share eulogizes him in "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning":

Wil was many things: a carpenter, songwriter, husband and father, poet. He made things with his hands, and he made a life with his spirit. I met him because he made poems, and when I saw him last year in Tennessee I took it for granted that I would see him again, and hear his beautiful voice again – and that there would be more poems. ...

Wil was gentle and serious, but he was also – it helps to remember at this sad moment – a poetic wit in the most classical sense, capable of poems that are rueful and well-wrought, but also wry. The last poem of Wil's that we published, "Nigella," is a poem that, wherever I go, readers mention to me with great pleasure. ...

and then shares "Nigella":

She minces squid and a marinated scallion,
Mixes rice with shrimp and olive paste. . . .
Hope for the English meal, though half Italian
With her jet black hair and her elastic waist.

Unlike the other television cooks,
She brings to life a lobster that was dead
With common spices, her exotic looks,
And recipes she dreamed about in bed.

In "A Gift for Adoration: Celebrating the life and words of poet Wilmer Mills" Jeff Hardin, a friend of Wil, reveals the secret origin of that poem:

Aware of my crush on Nigella Lawson, the cooking-show host, he delighted in writing a poem about her, just to poke fun at me, provoke a reaction. When the poem was published by Poetry magazine, I feared he might write a whole series of poems about my other crushes, beginning, of course, with Salma Hayek.

Jeff paints a poetic picture of his deep Christian love for Wil, including:

One time, years ago, he showed me a poem called “Confessions of a Steeplejack,” which later appeared in his collection, Light for the Orphans. Far down in the poem was this magical line: “the men who built old churches all have died.” I got goose bumps when he read that line aloud. I told him he had to make that line the opening of the poem. He argued with me, of course—that was Wil’s nature. He was stubborn, ornery, hard-headed to a fault. He claimed I didn’t understand what he was trying to do in the poem. I told him he was full of himself, that a reader encountering that line first would hear more deeply the heart of the poem. The change would require a lot of revision, a lot of hard work—the entire poem would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. “Maybe you’re not up for it,” I teased him. Then I told him that I’d beat the living crap out of him if he didn’t take my advice. He was taller, had a longer reach, but I warned him that I was scrappy. We both laughed. Sometime later, he rewrote the poem, starting with that magical line. It’s one of the gems in that collection, but then all of them are gems. Or “keepers,” as Wil would say.

Earlier this year, before we knew of Wil’s diagnosis, I sent him an email of encouragement about our writing. I often joked about how we had to help each other rebuild our shattered egos. Though we both have finished books that are yet unpublished, and though lack of recognition seems to be our mutual fate, I wanted to hold up between us an idea I had never really been able to form completely:

God’s really our only reader, the only one that matters anyway. I just think of writing as one of the ways I can follow what Phillipians 4:8 says: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

All the rest of it—the recognition, my spot on the stage, the next book publication—would be nice, but in the end, thinking on “these things” really is an astounding source of joy. It may have to be enough. Well, it is enough.

Wil wrote back with an enthusiastic “Amen!” I think he was finding that joy to be deeper and deeper the older he got. Selfishly, I wish he could have written forty more years’ worth of poems. Perhaps he would have moved from the Proverbs and Lamentations his poems often were to something like his own brand of Psalms. I don’t want to be selfish, though. I want to stand in awe of the words he wrote. Like him, once upon a time, they never existed. Now they do, inexplicably present in a fullness that didn’t exist before.

God’s Really Our Only Reader
Wilmer Mills (1969-2011)

(cf Chronos and Kairos (2022-04-06), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-10

- Friday, November 10, 2023 at 08:48:20 (EST)

On Borrowed Time

Wise thoughts, well stated: Anne Lamott's "It’s good to remember: We are all on borrowed time" (in the Washington Post, 30 Oct 2023). Some short samples:

So many indignities are involved in aging, and yet so many graces, too. The perfectionism that had run me ragged and has kept me scared and wired my whole life has abated. The idea of perfectionism at 60 is comical when, like me, you’ve worn non-matching black flats out on stage. In my experience, most of us age away from brain and ambition toward heart and soul, and we bathe in relief that things are not worse. When I was younger, I was fixated on looking good and impressing people and being so big in the world. By 60, I didn’t care nearly as much what people thought of me, mostly.

And anyway, you know by 60 that people are rarely thinking of you. They are thinking about their own finances, family problems and upper arms.


... My dad said after his cancer diagnosis that we are all on borrowed time, and it is good to be reminded of this now and again. It’s a great line, and the third-most-popular conversation we oldies have with each other, after the decline of our bodies and the latest senior moments: how many memorial services we go to these days.

Some weeks, it feels as though there is a sniper in the trees, picking off people we have loved for years. It breaks your heart, but as Carly Simon sang, there is more room in a broken heart. My heart is the roomiest it has ever been.

I do live in my heart more, which is hard in its own ways, but the blessing is that the yammer in my head is quieter, the endless questioning: What am I supposed to be doing? Is this the right thing? What do you think of that? What does he think of that?

My parents and the culture told me that I would be happier if I did a certain thing, or stopped doing that, or tried harder and did better. But as my great friend Father Terry Richey said, it’s not about trying harder; it’s about resisting less. This is right up aging’s alley. Some days are sweet, some are just too long.

... yes, a bit too first-person, a bit too comic-punchline-setup-delivery, a bit too small — yet also, totally good. Thank you, Ms Lamott, for the gentle reminders.

(cf Headlights and Decisions (1999-06-27), Help, Thanks, Wow (2013-02-25), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-09

- Thursday, November 09, 2023 at 10:51:53 (EST)

Cheerful Toki Pona

"Een taal met 137 woorden. De vrolijke kunsttaal Toki Pona." (in English, "A language with 137 words. The cheerful artificial language Toki Pona.") is a Dutch-language article in the journal Onze Taal, Feb-Mar 2022 issue. Near the beginning author Marc van Oostendorp summarizes the spirit of Toki Pona:

Toki Pona, the sweetest, most beautiful and funniest language there is, has existed for more than twenty years. A language in which it seems impossible to have a heated argument, and in which no threat or extremely boring speech has ever been formulated. Toki Pona sparkles and invites you at night, when you cannot sleep, to consider how you can formulate your thoughts in this special artificial language and to hear what it sounds like – so that you fall asleep with sounds on your lips that no one else understands.

He goes on to describe a bit of the history, vocabulary, and grammar of Toki Pona – as well as its real purpose:

Toki Pona's raison d'etre still lies where Sonja Lang once put it: by formulating your thoughts in a minimalist language, you force yourself to consider what you are actually doing. That is a game, the outcome of which is always a win, a form of meditation that also yields something: a beautiful sentence that you at least understand. It is a private language that you share with a few thousand others around the world and a form of art that reconciles you with existence for the duration of that one sentence. We can use language that comforts.

(translations above are lightly-edited from the Google Translate version of the Dutch article; cf Toki Pona (2022-12-18), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-06

- Monday, November 06, 2023 at 08:05:48 (EST)

How to Stay Sane in Brutalizing Times

David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed essay "How to Stay Sane in Brutalizing Times" suggests:

And examine yourself:

Are you becoming more humane or less? Are you a person who obsesses over how unfairly you are treated, or are you a person who is primarily concerned by how you see and treat others?

(NYT gift-link – and cf Prudent Leadership (2008-09-17), What Moderates Believe (2017-08-26), It's a Big Beautiful World (2021-05-03), Most People Seek to Be Good (2023-06-19), David Brooks on Being Human (2023-10-21), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-05

- Sunday, November 05, 2023 at 07:55:03 (EST)

Analytic Grading Standards

How to rate the quality of an analytic report? Here's a "badge card" summary version of one set of criteria from a decade or two ago, followed below by a long-form version.

Badge Card

Main Point ClearJudgments, Not Just FactsEvidence for JudgmentsSections Advance StoryPrecise Language
Beyond the ObviousProvide ContextNo ContradictionsOne Point per SectionConcise
"So What?"Anticipate QuestionsExplain ReliabilityConsistent TicsNo Typos
Note Changed AssessmentAlternate ViewsFree of BiasNo RedundancyNo Awkward Constructions
Opportunities for the USForward LookingIdentify GapsGraphics Aid Text
Provide WarningConfidence Levels


Long Form

MessageAnalyticConvincingEffectively StructuredWell-Written
Main point prominent and clearly statedMakes judgments; does not just provide factsProvides sufficient and compelling evidence to support judgmentsEach section, paragraph, and sentence advances the storyUses precise language, employing concrete examples and avoiding vague, ambiguous terms and jargon
Main point goes beyond what is obvious to a generalistProvides necessary context: key drivers; appropriate historical context; comparisons that provide perspective scale; whether development is new or consistent with ongoing trendFree of actual or apparent contradictions (to include consistency between title, summary, text, scope note, background note)One main point per section, per paragraphIs concise
Main point has a "so what?" for the USAnticipates a critical reader's questions and answers them in the textReliability of information clearly articulated (e.g., corroboration, access)Tics are consistent with the paragraphs to which they are attachedFree of grammatical errors, typos, and misspellings
If change from previous analytic line, explains what factors changed that resulted in amending the previous judgmentMakes differing views/alternative explanations clear, providing basis and implications of the differenceFree of bias, value laden terms, or advocacyAvoids redundancy, groups like with likeAvoids awkward constructions
Provides opportunities for the U.S.Is forward lookingIdentifies gaps, potential impact on the analytic line, and efforts to fill themContains graphics that effectively complement the written product
Provides warningExpresses confidence level in judgment


(cf I Am the Very Model of a Modern Intel Analyst (2018-04-08), How to Share Hard Ideas (2021-04-12), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-04

- Saturday, November 04, 2023 at 06:53:53 (EDT)

Picking Up Trash

"The Joy of Picking Up Other People’s Trash" by Jazmine Hughes — a poetic paen to doing good rather than getting angry and telling others what they should be doing. Sample bit:

I don’t trash-pick as often as I’d like to — usually when I’m faced with doing something far more unappealing, or whenever I need to work off some bad karma. It’s a terrific hobby for me, an anxious putterer with a holier-than-thou bent who writes better when my hands are occupied with something else. (I’m not alone — the humorist David Sedaris is a much more accomplished writer and trash picker than me.) When I do it, though, Bluetooth headphones in my ears and a weed gummy dissolving in my stomach, solicitousness and gratification ripple through me.

... a tiny loving-kind gift to the World — including the Self!

(cf Picking Up Litter (2011-10-25), Tikkun Olam (2019-12-11), ...) - ^z - 2023-11-03

- Friday, November 03, 2023 at 10:24:46 (EDT)

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