From the monthly archives:

March 2009

From a This I Believe essay by Matt Harding:

My brain was designed to inhabit a fairly small social network of maybe a few dozen other primates — a tribe. Beyond that size, I start to get overwhelmed.

And yet here I am in a world of over 6 billion people, all of whom are now inextricably linked together. I don’t need to travel to influence lives on the other side of the globe. All I have to do is buy a cup of coffee or a tank of gas. My tribe has grown into a single, impossibly vast social network, whether I like it or not. The problem, I believe, isn’t that the world has changed, it’s that my primitive caveman brain hasn’t.

I am fantastic at seeing differences. Everybody is. I can quickly pick out those who look or behave differently, and unless I actively override the tendency, I will perceive them as a threat. That instinct may have once been useful for my tribe but when I travel, it’s a liability.

When I dance with people, I see them smile and laugh and act ridiculous. It makes those differences seem smaller. The world seems simpler, and my caveman brain finds that comforting.


From the culture that gave us fireworks:

(You might want to mute the audio. To my ears, the music doesn’t quite work.)


It’s no surprise that in five lines, Miss Dickinson succinctly says what I spent more than a thousand words trying to convey:


Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,
And I am richer then than all my Fellow Men –
Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily
When at my very Door are those possessing more,
In abject poverty –


Trans-sensual videos:


From Advanced Beauty.

Curated by Universal Everything.

via Colour Lovers.


An updated recording tries to get closer to the sound of the Gyuto monks before they were exiled from Tibet fifty years ago:

Yet the sounds that thrilled Smith and Hart’s ears were not, technically, consummate. Smith’s 1967 tape is limited by several factors, primarily by the technology of the day, but also with the number of voices. Smith only heard the remnants of the choir — the few monks that survived the perilous trek into India after the Chinese invaded in 1959 and killed or imprisoned most of them. In the original Gyuto monastery, there were over a hundred monks in the choir.

“No one’s really heard a hundred monks outside of Lhasa for many years,” Hart notes.

People have heard smaller groups. Seven monks from the only other monastery that practices the chants won a Grammy recently. So, to re-create the sound of a full choir for this CD, Mickey Hart recorded each monk multiple times to make 10 voices sound like a hundred.

“We overdubbed, and now there’s over a hundred-voice choir here, which has never really been sounded in the West,” says Hart.

To hear a 24-minute track from this  overdubbed version, click on this link, then look at the box on the left side titled “Hear the Monks” and click on the link labeled “From Tibetan Chants for World Peace, produced by Mickey Hart: ‘Blessing The Offerings’”. (Sorry for the complex instructions. I don’t see a way to directly link to the recording.)

The voices are astounding — but so are the interlocking patterns of the percussion.

It’s worth a couple of listens.


From a story on NPR about measuring the structural integrity and speed of the brain’s white matter:

Haier says the good news is that we’re not necessarily stuck with the brain, or the brain speed, we inherit. He says thinking is like running or weightlifting. It helps to have certain genes. But anyone can get stronger or faster by working out.

The brain is like a muscle, Haier says: “The more you work it the more efficient it gets.”

So people who practice the violin, or do math problems, or learn a foreign language are constantly strengthening certain pathways in their brains.

And Thompson notes that our brains, unlike our bodies, peak relatively late in life.

“The wires between the brain cells, the connections, are the things that you can modify throughout life,” he says. “They change and they improve through your 40s and 50s and 60s.”


From David Orr’s article on “Greatness” in poetry:

“What is strange,” the poet-critic J. D. McClatchy writes, “is how her influence . . . has been felt in the literary culture. John Ashbery, James Merrill and Mark Strand, for instance, have each claimed [Elizabeth] Bishop as his favorite poet. . . . Since each of them couldn’t be more different from one another, how is it possible?”

It’s possible in the same way that other “great” artists have inspired diverse sets of peers and progeny.

There’s the old story about the Velvet Underground, that not many people actually heard them, but nearly everyone who did went and started a band. Were they great? I think some of their songs are — the droning “All Tomorrow’s Parties” has been a favorite of mine since I was twelve or thirteen. Detractors grumble about them playing out of tune, the unevenness of their rhythm section, the sloppy mixing, or the chaotic performances.

But beyond those petty complaints, what better legacy could you ask for than seeding an entire generation that grew in so many different directions?


Robert Greenberg, on the Harvard Business Review Editor’s Blog:

By 1803, it was, once again, time to innovate or throw in the towel. Finding inspiration in the heroic model of Napoleon Bonaparte and the revolutionary change in the air, Beethoven created for himself a heroic self-image, one that allowed him to funnel his rage, alienation, and passion into a music that abandoned convention. Central to Beethoven’s second reinvention was the belief that his music must be, above all, a vehicle for self-expression, unfettered by the old rules.

Of course, Beethoven eventually repudiated Napoleon, famously scratching out the dedication of the Third Symphony:

Title Page of the Third Symphony

Title Page of the Third Symphony

That’s what I find interesting about this framing of the story: the myth of Napoleon was a catalyst for Beethoven’s reinvention, even though the man didn’t  live up to the myth.

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I have some quibbles with some of his conclusions, but there are a few points worth culling from Merlin Mann’s speech at MacWorld this past January:

  • “Creativity is a way of seeing the world, it is a way of behaving, it is a way of understanding how things that may seem unrelated could actually be related.”
  • “When you become a professional creative person, having ideas is the least of your problems.”
  • “Ideas are cheap, making them into something awesome is super-hard.”
  • “Even if it’s just something you do as an avocation — for fun — it’s a job. It’s work.”
  • “There’s stuff you want to do that you may not even realize you want to do.”

His general themes — that creative endeavours require work, sacrifice and blocks of uninterrupted time, and that there may be archetypal patterns to making ideas into something we can share and interact with — are spot on.

There’s also a video on YouTube but it’s 27 minutes, with technical difficulties and a fair bit of wandering jocularity, which is why I’m presenting a condensed version here.


The Guardian (and the BBC) report on the revival of a World War II-era poster:

Keep Calm And Carry On

Keep Calm And Carry On

So much for stiff upper lip. It sounds rather limp to me.

Whatever it might have meant to a population under the threat of Nazi invasion, does it apply to the current global economic downturn?

Matt Jones offers a worthy riposte:

Don't keep calm and carry on.

The change of color reflects the difference in sentiments nicely, too.

via Merlin Mann


From The Poet’s Trade by Amy Lowell:

“No one expects a man to make a chair without first learning how, but there is a popular impression that the poet is born, not made, and that his verses burst from his overflowing heart of themselves. As a matter of fact, the poet must learn his trade in the same manner, and with the same painstaking care, as the cabinet-maker. His heart may overflow with high thoughts and sparkling fancies, but if he cannot convey them to his reader by means of written word he has no claim to be considered a poet. A workman may be pardoned, therefore, for spending a few moments to explain and describe the technique of his trade. A work of beauty which cannot stand an intimate examination is a poor and jerry-built thing.”

And that’s less than half of it. Read the rest…


Photographs of the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan:

The Ceiling

The Ceiling

Across the Water

Across the Water

More photos available here, via gargantua & pantagruel.

Read more about the observatory on Wikipedia.


Clay Shirky, on the future of newspapers:

“In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.”

“For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.”

And for journalism, I think we can also substitute music, film, and just about every form of digital art.


Planet Money had a great piece yesterday on a third-grader’s cake-based confidence game:

“Even, at a certain point, I believed in the cake, even though I’d made it up. Because I just imagined the hero’s welcome I was going to receive when they wheeled this Technicolor, baked colossus into the schoolyard, and how incredible it was going to be,” Bearman says. “So there was this mutually reinforcing psychology: We all just bought into the idea of this cake.”


Bre Prettis and Kio Stark have written a 13-point Cult of Done Manifesto. Examples:

2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.

6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.

9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.

Here’s one of the visual depictions, by James Provost:

Done Manifesto