past the Ides

I note that I didn’t post anything to the blog in February and that it’s now past mid-March. So what have I been up to in that time? Most of my keeping track has been managed on yellow pads, but one of the most recent distractions was email from HR65 about our 55th Reunion, delayed 2 years because of COVID and now scheduled to take place in May, and do we want to register and attend? This sort of thing usually puts me into some sort of tailspin: I surprised myself by actually enjoying the 50th Reunion, back in 2015 (which seems another world entirely), but my ambivalence about Harvard is pretty close to the surface. The 55th is basically a day of ‘symposia’ (which means listening to erstwhile classmates talk about something, and tends toward the Grand Questions) with bits in between for “breakout sessions” that are supposed to evoke conversation. I run screaming, but ?why? … and I have an answer to that. Or maybe it’s an Answer. The question one is surely likely to be asked (if anybody asks anything) is “so what have you been doing?” and you get a few minutes to try to say something significant, memorable, fulfilling. Ugh. But imagining that socially discomfiting question did inspire me to try to sculpt an Answer (impossible to deliver/convey in the allotted few minutes, and to a complete stranger at that), if only to remind myself about what actually matters.

So here goes: at the core of what I’ve been doing in the 16 1/2 years since I retired and moved to Maine has been curation of a lifetime of enthusiasms, putting It All Together for myself and perhaps for some as-yet-unimagined audience. There’s a catalog of activities that span parts of that 16 1/2 years:

  • 14 years in support of Alice (1925-2010) and Wick (1924-2019)
  • about 15 years of yoga
  • about 14 years rekindling Photography (see Ilachinski workshop)
  • 16 1/2 years of working on Musics (a mostly-solitary pursuit of great complexity)
  • about 7 years (2013-2019) of travel (and 2 years of not-travel, 2020-present)
  • about 6 years of trash pickup (since 2016 election)
  • about 5 years (2015-2020) working on a dozen photo books
  • about 5 years being more involved with writing, much of it to keep track of thoughts re: Convivium Questions
  • and throughout, reading and buying books that bear upon enthusiasms
  • reorganizing the personal Libraries, a vast enterprise in negentropy
  • And of course playing at hypertext, working toward building a Lifebox.

Each of those is a saga of discoveries, far too complex for that elevator-pitch few minutes, and mediated by incoming periodicals and blog posts and books. In short, I’ve been enjoying my life day-to-day, no boredom or lack of things to do, and being pretty private about most of that, though it’s at oook.info for anybody to explore ad lib. I’m on the Periphery in almost every way, spatially and intellectually and practically, working at blamelessness. Self-absorbed covers it pretty well.

awaiting a blizzard

This marvelous improbability hung above the kitchen stove at Horton Landing through the 1970s, and surfaces today because I’ve been sorting through saved images on various hard drives. Perhaps I’ll add others I encounter as the day unfolds.

and here comes another one:

Much thinking lately about Time and age cohorts, bringing to mind a painting (by John Faed, 1851) which I have as a print, formerly framed and hung in a Nova Scotia parlour, sporting the title

Shakespeare und sein Zeitgenossen

It shows a fictional/imaginary meeting at the Mermaid Tavern of everybody who was anybody in London literary circles around 1600 or so. Think of them as a cohort, sharing time and space for a few years (moments?). Wikipedia decodes the Dramatis Personæ:

(from left in back) Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont,
(seated at table from left) William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel,
Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker.

and somehow it’s 2022

Has it really been a month since the last blog post? Of course lots of stuff in that time, books arriving and being wolfed down and at least partially digested, various end-of-year summings-up, and the plunge into 2022. Staying home, minimizing f2f encounters, watching It All Go Down.

Preparations for the weekly Convivium have supplanted blogging to some degree, and

tell the tale of my wandering attentions pretty well.

By way of paying attention to the world outside the many comforts of home, I’ve been following Heather Cox Richardson and Umair Haque, both sort of paywalled (or anyhow I’m not sure if hyperlinks to their posts on Substack and Medium are readily accessible), and both painting not-rosy pictures of what’s just around the corner.

…and I’ve revisited Joan Didion and Jorge Luis Borges profitably, and lately discovered Unflattening (Nick Sousanis) and The Secret To Superhuman Strength (Alison Bechdel), among (many) others.

Reacquaintance with Borges reminded me yet again of the charms of his Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, and The Library of Babel (see Jonathan Basile’s obsession: The Library of Babel and about The Library of Babel) … and if the Work itself is unknown to you, there’s a pdf available). Among the additional resources I’m now navigating, The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel (William Goldbloom Bloch) and The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges (Edwin Williamson)

…and then consult The Aleph (pdf), when you’re ready for the next thing… Hell of a ride. I’ve just ordered The Total Library : Non-Fiction, 1922-1986, so The Future Is Assured for the rest of January. And of course other things will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.

I resolve to start building my very own Lifebox, inspired by Rudy Rucker’s The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, And How to Be Happy. Well, I’ve been building it all along, but the project longs to have its own dedicated (hyper)space.

and on Friday

Here’s today’s stream of things read and considered:

Smugth

Days often begin with a meaty email message from John, always spiky with pithy observations, lively questions, pointers to interesting sources and resources. Following up on his links is just the beginning of the day’s fun, because there’s always a trickle of blog postings coming through as well (sometimes tucked away for later viewing, sometimes sucked right in, and maybe passed along to others), and often enough the various messages complement each other.

Today John pointed to Sarah Miller’s Annals of a Warming Planet (“The millions of tons of carbon emissions that don’t exist”) in the New Yorker. Some of the trenchant bits I wrote down:

wood pellets marketed as “sustainably sourced biomass”

“…counting biomass as carbon-neutral…”

est. 60,000 acres of trees burned every year
to supply the growing pellet market

…It takes between 40 and 100 years for a new tree to pay down the carbon debt
racked up by logging and burning an old one…

supposedly “residue from the timber industry, made out of scraps and sawdust…”

but trees harvested in US and Canada to make pellets for export

supposedly “sustainably sourced forest thinning and low-grade wood”

“…if a government or private entity cuts down a forest but doesn’t redevelop the land,
it has not officially engaged in deforestation”

no one has figured out how to capture and store enough carbon
to make any difference

The problem is “the economy”, which is required to produce profits
and reproduce itself, and which requires large energy inputs to do so…

The truth is that if the economy is not entirely remade,
the debates over the folly of biomass, over what counts as renewable,
over whether or not a tree can grow back faster than it burns
—all of it will vanish into a great silence.

John goes on to note the Smugth with which he piloted a biodiesel car for a decade, shudders to think about other things done or considered, and observes:

I’ve been struck during the pandemic that everyone draws their own line of what is a reasonable precaution and what is an unwelcome intrusion, and there are people who staunchly defend their particular stance along the spectrum of public health (collective gain) vs personal liberty (and economic gain). The same spectrum is clearly in place on the environmental plane…and I see the mixture of cognitive dissonance and preachy self satisfaction at work in myself and in so many others.

Other things that rolled in today:

A week or so I was wondering to myself ??What does one do when one recognizes that one is caught in a Contradiction? When one realizes personal implication in something that one deeply deplores? ?When one wishes to at least be consistent… ?? …which of course happens all the time, trivially and grandly. When one reads about water in the San Joaquin Valley and learns about the structure and depradations of the almond industry, is it thinkable to keep buying almond milk? And what about that 2 cord of wood we burn each winter, just how much better or worse is it than, say, propane in our wall heaters… and so on. Such thoughts are pretty small potatoes in comparison to the Big Delusions of our society and culture, our nation, our species…

the in-built addiction to Growth that underwrites pretty much everything we do, and that we have been pretty much constantly reminded of since The Limits to Growth (1974; 2004 30-year update), which I’m starting to re-examine.

And this all in the context of reading Edward Tufte’s fifth book, Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Meaning, Space, Data, Truth

A sense of the relevant is the ability to identify and detect
those things that have consequences beyond themselves.

creativity is connecting things

spaces and linebreaks create poetic meaning

Photography is alright, if you don’t mind
looking at the world from the point of view
of a paralyzed Cyclops
—for a split second
(David Hockney)

models sanctified and celebrated by insiders
can evolve into uncontested, lucrative, congealed
monopolies/specialties/cartels/cults/disciplines
—which in time become self-centered and selfish,
more and more about themselves, and less and less about
their original substantive content.

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


=====

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]…)

=====

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

=====

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.

=====

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

=====

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.

=====

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…