Morning Explorations, 5 December 2021

It’s interesting to trace a stream of morning activity, if only so that I might be able to get back to sources too briefly examined, and of course it’s useful to dip a toe into the slipstream of my Attention from time to time.

I’ve been reading Mark Arax The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, on the recommendation of Robert Glennon, and got wondering about all the concrete that went into the aqueducts, then recalled reading a New Yorker article about sand (May 22 2017) … which inevitably led to the google for other bits of the Tale of Sand. Here’s some of what I found:

Silica sands – Supply shortage, 2022 demand outlook

High-quality sand is in short supply

Sand Shortage 2021: Is The World Running Out of Sand?

Sand shortage: The world is running out of a crucial commodity

Sand and Sustainability (pdf of the 2019 UN Environmental Program report)

Vince Beiser – black market sand (author of The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, now queued up on the Kindle)

The truth behind stolen beaches and dredged islands

The world is ‘running out of sand’, and it’s fuelling murders, mafias and ecological devastation

The world is running out of sand — there’s even a violent black market for it


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And then along came this: Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth (via Bruce Sterling’s blog)

…the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans that have not been demolished or taken out of service—which is separately defined as anthropogenic mass waste.

Global Biomass: the dry weight of all life on Earth 1120 Gt

Anthropogenic mass: “everything the human population has created since 1900, to 2020” — 1154 Gt, incremented by 30 Gt/year

549 Gt Concrete
286 Gt Aggregates (clay, sand, gravel)
92 Gt bricks (ca. 15 billion bricks/yr; 85% from Asia
65 Gt Asphalt
39 Gt Metals
23 Gt Other (wood, glass, plastic [8 Gt of that]…)

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…and that led to further exploration of the Visual Capitalist website, which offered Visual Capitalist: Maps, full of enticing rabbit holes…

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And so a bit of cleaning up of recent explorations, consequent upon recent reading of Termination Shock and The Ministry for the Future, it occurred to me to wonder about the current state of The Aleph: an analysis of Borges’ masterpiece

In September 1945, the short story “The Aleph” was published in the Argentine journal “Sur”. It is written by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges to narrate his fictionalized character’s experience as he saw the Aleph, a point in space where all points in the universe can be seen. Reprinted as the title work of Borges’ 1949 collection “The Aleph and Other Stories” … a matter of literary craftsmanship to explore “infinity”. With its varying theme, the literary piece argues that the universe is ineffable, time is inexorable, experiences shape perception and rationality. … According to the narrator, the Aleph is a “small iridescent sphere with unbearable brilliance” where all places on Earth can be seen from every angle without distortion or confusion, simultaneously.

…the Aleph or “Alef” is the Hebrew alphabet’s first letter and in Jewish Kabbalah, it is the “En Soph” that signifies the nameless being called “YHWH” who created the world.
(and/or)
In his first set theory article in 1874, Georg Cantor outlined that the Aleph is the representation of transfinite numbers.

…Aleph is a representation of how unpredictable, indescribable, and unconscious life can be for the human-animal as unseen forces move him/her.

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And quite by chance a couple of links to our sort-of neighbor when we lived in Lexington VA, Sally Mann:

“I Pick Up Whatever’s Around”

and from Fresh Air 2015

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and this, from email from Lapham’s Quarterly:

“What do you know about this business?” the King of Hearts asks Alice during the trial at the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Nothing,” she replies. “That’s very important,” responds the king. The scene continues: ” ‘Unimportant, of course, I meant,’ the king hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, ‘important—unimportant—unimportant—important—’ as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down “important” and some “unimportant.” Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; “but it doesn’t matter a bit,” she thought to herself.

At this moment the king, who had been for some time busily writing in his notebook, cackled out, “Silence!” and read out from his book, “Rule forty-two: All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.”

Everybody looked at Alice.

“I’m not a mile high,” said Alice.

“You are,” said the king.

“Nearly two miles high,” added the queen.

“Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,” said Alice, “besides, that’s not a regular rule; you invented it just now.”

“It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the king.

“Then it ought to be number one,” said Alice.

The king turned pale and shut his notebook hastily. “Consider your verdict,” he said to the jury in a low, trembling voice.

“No, no!” said the queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterward.”

“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”

“Hold your tongue!” said the queen, turning purple.

“I won’t!” said Alice.

“Off with her head!” the queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

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And finally, a very high tide at 11 AM today!

Metamaunderings at the end of November

Every now and again I write out a metathoughts summary, for my own future edification. I’ve just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, which is more or less a speculative fiction take on geoengineering, and have of course been considering the Crises of the era/moment: epidemiological, ecological , climatological, technical, existential, politico-economical, socio-cultural, psychological and so on, the whole litany of -als … which are of course also dynamical, continuing to evolve, and with which we mess at our Peril. But one does wonder about the notion of Fixability.

The basic problem is that there’s nowhere to stick the Lever to alter one parameter without implicating other parameters: everything is joined in, only sometimes simply and obviously—more commonly, indirectly and even mysteriously. And even if one has some such Lever, let alone a place to stand, or a fulcrum…

So you have what we observe as this mysteriously organized Realiity, with vast numbers of internal connections whose dynamics are only imperfectly understood, through which course energy and information. One’s brain is a local manifestation of this architecture of Reality, and there are now billions of [human] brains in operation; but that operation is not upon independent billions, though the mapping of their interconnections and contingencies would be very complex indeed. And there are surely modalities of exchange amongst those brains [and the brains of many more billions of no-longer-extant individuals, not to mention other sentients…] besides the sight-and-sound that are readily perceived.

The Mechanism is … exquisite. And it’s more organic than simply mechanical levers and circuits. The animation is Life, which comes down finally to the processing, the allocation, of Energy, ultimately (?) stellar in origin. But what is it all for? Amusement of the gods, if gods there be?

The User’s Manual for that Reality is continuously edited, mostly in the direction of greater complexity of what we understand (as opposed to simplification).

And what I’m doing these days is spelunking in that grand territory, poking my nose into various corners of that land/thoughtscape to see and hear and touch what there is to be learned, just for the sake of learning’s pleasure and joy. What a gift, and opportunity, to live therein.

Never too far away is the “and so … what?” question, part of the idea that one might have Responsibilities, in the direction of what to do with that learning, beyond the pleasures of basking in it. If I do, I have no idea how to meet or discharge those Responsibilities, and presently find it satisfying to ignore them, or think of them as discharged in years of teaching [which were more years of learning] and librarianship. Am I writing a book? No. Though the 12 Blurb books are surely products of some of my explorations, and my pile of yellow pads tracks the last 3 years or so of adventures.

At the moment, the musical and photographic facets of my enterprises seem to be somewhat in abeyance, but may revive thanks to some nudge—perhaps the just-purchased Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World (Nina Kraus, on Kindle).

Obscure Sorrows

John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows arrived earlier in the week, and I’ve been enjoying it bit by bit. Here’s an entry that seems to fit with the ambient querilosity of the present moment:

LUMUS: the poignant humanness beneath the spectacle of society

Your culture never really leaves you. Its rhythms are encoded in your heartbeat, its music embedded in the sound of your voice. Its images make up the raw material of your wildest dreams, your deepest fears, even your attempts to rebel against it. So it’s hard not to get swept up in the spectacle of it all, absorbing its stories and values and symbols until you no longer question their importance. It’s as if there’s a circus wheeling around you all the time, so overwhelming that you keep forgetting it’s there.

But there are still moments when you manage to tune out the fanfare—taking time in nature, in solitude, or in some other culture entirely—getting away long enough so that when you return to normal life again, you’re able to look around with fresh eyes, and see how abnormal it really is.

You take in all the scenes and sideshows happening around you. It doesn’t quite feel like reality anymore, more like the worldbuilding of a fantasy novel. You have no idea who came up with this stuff, but you can’t help but be impressed by their tireless dedication to fleshing out even the most mundane details. The vaunted marble halls of politics and business and religion and the arts, each buttressed by its own rules and standards and practices, booming with the echoes of a billion conversations that everyone seems to take so very seriously. Rituals of status and fashion, the mythology of the markets, pop-culture think pieces, and waves upon waves of breaking news. You wonder how you ever managed to get so invested, following all these stock characters, and all their little dramas and debates. Who said what to whom? What does it all mean? What will happen next?

You’re struck by how arbitrary and provisional it all feels. Though it has the weight of reality, you know it could just as easily have been something else. You realize that all of our big ideas and sacred institutions were designed and built by ordinary human beings, soft-bellied mammals, who shiver when they’re cold, dance around when they have to pee, and lash out when they feel powerless. So much of our culture exists because someone was hungry once, someone was bored, someone was afraid, someone wanted to impress a mate, prove something wrong, or leave their kids a better life.

The circus is so big and bright and loud, it’s easy to believe that there’s the real world and you live somewhere outside it. But beneath all these constructed ideals, there is a darker heart of normalcy, a humble humanness, that powers the whole thing. We’re all just people. We go to work and play our roles as best we can, spinning our tales and performing our tricks, but then we take off our makeup and go home, where we carry on with our real lives. None of us really knows what is happening, what we’re doing, where we’re going, or why. Still we carry on, doing what we can to get through it. Even the roar of the city can sometimes feel like a cry for help.

Inevitably, within a few days or weeks at most, you’ll find yourself getting swept right back into the big show, even though you know it’s all just an act. That’s perhaps the most amazing thing about a society: even if none of us fully believes in it, we’re all willing to come together and pretend we do, doing our part to hold up the tent. If only so we can shut out the darkness for a little while, and offer each other the luxury of thinking that little things matter a great deal.

We know it’s all so silly and meaningless, and yet we’re still here, holding our breath together, waiting to see what happens next. And tomorrow, we’ll put ourselves out there and do it all again. The show must go on.

[Latin lumen, light, brightness + humus, a particularly rich and dark component of soil,
made of decayed organic matter]

If I was teaching Intro Anthropology, or Advanced Anthropology either too, I might use this passage as the Kickoff.

in the last month

A bit more than a month since my last post here, and 2 1/2 yellow pads of notes to oneself and transcriptions of trenchant passages from the still-growing mountain of books I’ve been in and out of as I work on library re-organization and explorations of subjects I’ve defined via explorations past and present. The Auxiliary Library in the barn has been the primary locus, warmed by the sun in the mornings and equipped with reasonable music-playing apparatus (though soon to be upgraded), and the succession of interests mostly traced on those yellow pads. If I leaf through them, here’s what I find:

That’s a pretty varied ramble and doesn’t include the various miscellany I’ve tossed into Zotero, which are awaiting examination

…or the Episodes watched, or video clips harvested and in storage, awaiting curation; and the blogstuff encountered that I’ve sent to a select few others, as seemed appropriate.

nexial facetiae

…and Kentlee followed up with a pointer to John Gall‘s The Systems Bible, which deals with Systemantics. It first appeared in 1975, was updated in 1986, and expanded in a third edition in 2012. I grabbed it on the Kindle and started reading, flipping between parody and an exposé of some of the fallacies and limitations of “systems thinking” as practised (and buzzworded) in the early 1970s. Delightful reading, a flavor of which can be sampled via Taylor Pearson, and from Drafty Manor. Gall was an acute observer and had a sharp eye for hypocrises, things hidden in plain sight, and the Emperor’s Clothes.

I happened to look at the book’s cataloging information and found that one of its Library of Congress subject descriptors is

System Theory – anecdotes, facetiae, satire, etc.

Facetiae, eh? Here are some of the dictionary entries for that one:

treating serious issues with deliberately inappropriate humor
flippant
joking or jesting, often inappropriately
a joke with a little drop of sarcasm
intentionally unserious
making humorous remarks or saying things they do not mean in a situation where they ought to be serious
characterized by levity of attitude and love of joking
dark humor
playfully jocular
waggish
cutting, witty, often sarcastic remarks
a sarcastic and sardonic comment, more sneering and meaner
not meant to be taken seriously or literally
joking in terms of pretending something is true,
while knowing that it is false

Hmmmm, I thought, how guilty am I of pretty much all of those? How many of the books on my shelves partake of the facetious and the parodic? Edward Gorey? Terry Pratchett? Archy and Mehitabel? The Good Soldier Svejk? The Big Lebowski? Sandman? uh oh…

Nexial Institute

A couple of days ago I happened upon Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books (Georges Perec). Since I’ve been working on Arranging in the Auxiliary Library in the barn for at least a month, it seemed a no-brainer to order. And today along comes email from John-the-son asking about the Nexial Institute, which several of us [consider that we] invented and elected ourselves to in about 1973. His question:

So I’ve always assumed that this idea had some particular vision or principles behind it, but I also get the impression it may have been a joke. Perhaps both.

Have you done any writing about what was or was not within this set of ideas? I figured this included several others from … grad school days? Or early Acadia?

Did you ever do anything formal with this Institute? Or particular ideas that propelled the conservations surrounding it?

I replied

I’ve got queries out to the original perpetrators (Kent, Shel, Mom) and I’ll be interested to see their takes. For me the Significance of the Nexial Institute has remained …well… Significant, and I’d even claim that everything I’ve done since 1973 is somehow rooted in the basic notions of everything connected to everything, of Systems, of the Dynamical. But I suppose it was basically a joke, or perhaps more accurately a Joke.

Kent’s response fingered the origin of ‘Nexial’ from A.E. van Vogt’s sci-fi The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which I don’t think I have ever read (and so have ordered…). Wikipedia:

The main protagonist of the novel is Dr. Elliott Grosvenor, the only Nexialist on board (a new discipline depicted as taking an actively generalist approach towards science). It is Grosvenor’s training and application of Nexialism rather than the more narrow-minded approaches of the individual scientific and military minds of his other shipmates that consistently prove more effective against the hostile encounters both from outside and within the Space Beagle.

And here’s John’s response to my response:

Got it… But did it have as a part of the germ, the inversion of all that complexity, of the observer influencing what was observed, and of the realization that follows that your every intention, conscious and otherwise, is responsible for influencing the “outside” world, just as it is imperfectly creating the illusion of that objectivity within consciousness, replete with ungraspable biases? The unknown knowns that constrain our very conception of what is possible and real? Oh, the paralysis that comes from that realization of interconnectivity, when you realize that every yarn you pull at will bring worlds crashing down and others springing into existence, barely or not even perceptible. The only ways forward I perceive from there is either to blindly follow the habituated momentum (karma) that was put into place before such a realization until the yawning chasm of awareness undilates again, OR fall into nihilism OR to consciously create an intention (art?) which requires an underlying faith that it will come about, and that circumstances will co-incide to bring it about, if the intention is aligned across consciousness, and circumstances will throw cascading obstacles if the different levels of intentions are incoherent or at cross-purposes?

um… probably, what with the amount of consciousness-expanding consumption that was going on?

So this comes from the “duh” perspective of yes, “yeah sure, dad” everything is connected “so what?”

So there’s the next Challenge, unpacking all of that. At the moment, all I have to contribute is the conviction that “a lot of my present-day library could be woven in”, and some photos of a few shelves from the barn to suggest some of what I can draw upon:

technology
technology

anthropology
anthropology

landscapes
landscapes

information
information

(Those categories are approximate and partial and provisional…)

Equinoctal meta-tation


It’s been a busy fortnight of explorations:

And then yesterday along comes email from John the Son with this challenge:

On the subject of cats in Sarawak, have you read [Paolo Bacigalupi’s] ‘the windup girl‘ it’s very evocative and the GMO cats are everpresent. I’m very curious of your perspective on this vision of southeast Asia in the somewhat near future. And of the tensions between the Malay and Chinese immigrants that are cited as a brutal(future) history in the book.
I remember you saying that each of the four groups thought the others were disgusting for different reasons: the Muslims, the Chinese, the Malay and the westerners…

into the answer of which is packed a vast morass of entangled Information. I did read The Windup Girl when it first came out, then passed the book along to my (much-missed since 2016) friend Hutch (whose Thai connections were deep), so I snagged it via Kindle and am reading it again to see what I might have thought before and what I think now.


John’s question dropped me right into Professor mode, to wrangling what I “know” and/or what I have thought I knew over a broad canvas, thinking about what I’d have to weave into any …explication… of the dimensions of a satisfying answer to the question. That’s great sport, in which I’ve lived for a good 55+ years—and which I should have lived in those 60 years ago days of Harvard /opportunities/, but needed then to (a) invent for myself, and (b) develop the requisite background to begin to practise. And of course I’m still learning how to do those things, and how to think about them.


That’s true for all of my Entanglements with subject matter

  • photography
  • music
  • geography/landscape
  • words
  • The Computer
  • food
  • curiosity [about things not already listed…]

…and so I’ve been exploring the Southeast Asia territory of my mental and bibliographic Catalog, to figure out how to set about providing enough of the relevant background to make a sensible answer (i.e., to Inform the Others Against Their Will). There’s a sequence to the exposition, starting with physical geography, ecology, at least a millennium of human demography, and then finally history… covering the whole of what JOM Broek has summarized as

an area of transit and transition … [with a long history of] foreign intrusions … culturally a low-pressure area … recipients rather than donors of culture … ethnic and political fragmentation—a kind of Asian Balkans.

There’s plenty to quibble over in that summary, but it serves to indicate the diversity that has to be accounted for, understood, and fairly characterized.


That’s a term-long class to even contemplate. But wouldn’t it be fun to … no, it wouldn’t, or rather YES it would but only in the imagination. No names, no pack drill, no papers to write and read, no grades to turn in.

So here’s the first page I wrote:

The first thing I’d say is how arbitrary the national boundaries of Southeast Asia are [essentially colonial legacy] and how complex ethnic identities are within each of the current-day nations. Labels like ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Thai’, ‘Burmese’, ‘Indonesian’ project an image of homogeneity within the labels that is at best false-by-oversimplification. There’s an interesting analogy to explore in the shadow theatre so widespread across Southeast Asia; another is the music of gongs, present everywhere as shimmering sound, but in both cases built on illusion: the shadows of the puppets are insubstantial, flickering, turned into narrative by the words of the puppet-master storytellers; the striking of gongs rendered musical and comprehensible as evanescent layers each of which is a pretty simple repetition of a pattern. Somewhere under those visual and aural realizations is a profound syncretism of … Hindu and Buddhist influences, Muslim notions, a Western European and Colonial imposition of “order”, bits of Chinese high and low traditions … and all of that overlaid on a persisting base of indigenous animisms—enormously complex worlds of spirits and ghosts and shamanic manipulations. Add a murky history of trade and gene flows, and natural and anthropogenic ecologies, and human entanglement with plant and animal life, and rising falling seas. And make it equatorial, and subject to annual monsoon/dry cycles…


And there you have the stage set. For next class, please read………

(at least two classes on rice… and there’s rubber… and oil palm… and and and)

Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia

and so on.

senryu

While exploring journal entries from 2007 (as part of work on the grand history of my own computer entanglements) I came across responses to a question posed by Gardner Campbell: what kind of poem are you? Here’s my response:

senryu is me
enigmatic smile wrapped in
clever doubletalk

and here’s Broot’s, much more elegant:

my weakness – senryu
wryly observing humans
skirting the unkind

and that was July

Once again I’ve got only a single blog posting for the month. The photostream records a succession of grill-watching evenings:

ycmtsu 15vii2102adj 16vii2102

(Kate does the grilling, I having no genes for that activity.
She includes kohlrabi and green beans and zucchini as regular grillage,
and it seems possible that ALL garden produce can be grilled…)

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16vii2101

11vii2101

Organizing projects in shop and Library Annex proceed:

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25vii2107

I bought a couple of professional-grade book carts to facilitate the Library (re-)organization process:
25vii2104

…and it proceeds slowly, arranged by my own idiosyncratic and ever-morphing categories:
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It’s been very pleasant to spend afternoons sitting here dipping in and out of a succession of rediscovered books.
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In Convivium space, I spent quite a while thinking about the Future. On other frontiers, lots of books read, music played, videos watched, trash picked up. Quite content to be mostly At Home, going from thing to thing.