rcr1956 + culture   110

Does altitude affect the way language is spoken?
CORAL GABLES, FL (June 12, 2013) -- Language is formed by giving meaning to sounds and stringing together these meaningful expressions to communicate feelings and ideas. Until recently most linguists believed that the relationship between the structure of language and the natural world was mainly the influence of the environment on vocabulary. Now, a new study published in the June 12 edition of PLOS ONE shows that there is a link between geographical elevation and the way language is spoken.
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Culture  from google
june 2013 by rcr1956
Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality
“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The friction between science and religion stretches from Galileo’s famous letter to today’s leading thinkers. And yet we’re seeing that, for all its capacity for ignorance, religion might have some valuable lessons for secular thought and the two need not be regarded as opposites.

In 1996, mere months before his death, the great Carl Sagan — cosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic — explored the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library). He writes:

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

And yet science, Sagan argues, isn’t diametrically opposed to spirituality. He echoes Ptolemy’s timeless awe at the cosmos and reflects on what Richard Dawkins has called the magic of reality, noting the intense spiritual elevation that science is capable of producing:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Reminding us once again of his timeless wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness and the importance of evidence, Sagan goes on to juxtapose the accuracy of science with the unfounded prophecies of religion:

Not every branch of science can foretell the future — paleontology can’t — but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability — precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics — to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

Nearly two decades after The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan’s son, Dorion, made a similar and similarly eloquent case for why science and philosophy need each other. Complement it with this meditation on science vs. scripture and the difference between curiosity and wonder.

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culture  science  books  Carl_Sagan  philosophy  religion  from google
june 2013 by rcr1956
Metabolic PET imaging provides earlier warning of coronary disease
Vancouver, British Columbia – Coronary artery disease (CAD) is one of the world's most prevalent and silent killers. Positron emission tomography (PET), which images miniscule abnormalities in cellular metabolism, can tip off clinicians about cardiac disasters waiting to happen— including sudden death from a heart attack—better than standard angiography, researchers revealed at the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging's 2013 Annual Meeting.
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Culture  from google
june 2013 by rcr1956
Eww! Only 5 percent of us wash hands correctly
Borchgrevink and colleagues trained a dozen college students in data collection and had them observe hand washing in restrooms in bars, restaurants and other public establishments. The student researchers were as unobtrusive as possible – by standing off to the side and entering results on a smart phone, for example.

The study is one of the first to take into account factors such as duration of the hand washing and whether people used soap.

Specific findings include:
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Culture  from google
june 2013 by rcr1956
June 6, 1917: Edna St. Vincent Millay Almost Gets Banned from Her Own Graduation
“I always said … that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way.”

Anne Sexton’s recently rediscovered report card revealed that the celebrated author barely made it through school. During her last week of college, Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — found herself in a similar conundrum, though for very different reasons. On June 6, 1917, the vivacious, life-loving 25-year-old Millay sends her family a letter from Vassar, which she had entered late, at the age of 21, after taking several classes at Barnard College and, dissatisfied, deciding to transfer. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), it informed them of the consequences of Millay’s youthful mischief with charmingly self-conscious faux-nonchalance. Underpinning her words is her signature blend of irreverent pride and genuine sensitivity, and her unrelenting ability to seek and find, above all else, that which is beautiful and worthy of cheer.

Dear Mother & Sister –

In a few days now I shall write myself
A.B.
& send home my sheepskin for you to frame & hang up unesthetically in a conspicuous position. Everything is all right. My bills are paid.

But I must tell you something unpleasant but quite unimportant which has just occurred. — Because I was absent-minded & stayed away out of town with three other girls one night, forgetting until it was too late that I had no right to be there because I had already lost my privileges for staying a couple of days in New York to go to the Opera, — the Faculty has taken away from me my part in Commencement. — That doesn’t mean just what it says, because my part in Commencement will go on without me, — Baccalaureate Hymn [which Millay composed], for instance, or the words of Tree Ceremonies, which we repeat — & it all seems pretty shabby, of course, after all that I have done for the college, that it would turn me out at the end with scarcely enough time to pack and, as you might say, sort of “without a character.” — The class is exceedingly indignant, bless ‘em, & is busy sending in petitions signed by scores of names, & letters from representative people, & all that. It will do no good. But it is a splendid row.

I always said, you remember, that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way. — Well, that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t pretend that I don’t feel badly. I do. — I have wept gallons — all over everybody. — Terribly nervous, you know, because I had sat up three whole nights during exams, to get my topics done, — & no sleep in the day-time. … It isn’t a disgrace, you see, folks, — it’s just a darned unpleasant penalty for carelessness of college rules, occurring at a darned unfortunate time.

But I never knew before that I had so many friends. — Everybody is wonderful.

So wonderful were her legions of friends, in fact, that they steered things in Millay’s favor. The following Sunday, she writes her sister:

Dear Norma –
Tell Mother it is all right, — the class made such a fuss that they let me come back, & I graduated in my cap & gown along with the rest. Tell her it had nothing to do with money; — all my bills have been settled for some time. — Commencement went off beautifully & I had a wonderful time. Tell her this at once if you can. . . .

But, to be sure, Millay was no careless party girl — during her time at Vassar, she had already sold a number of poems to various publications and was about to launch into adult life with full force. She writes Norma in the same letter:

I’m staying here & just looking around for a job. If I get one soon enough, & it doesn’t begin for a short time perhaps I shall come home when Kathleen does, but otherwise I shall just stay on here until I get something to do, probably. YOu see I have to start right in working as soon as I can get a job, — & I may not be able to come home at all. We mustn’t be foolish about these things.

I have sold October-November to The Yale Review, a fine magazine.

If I got an engagement for the fall then I could come home & do some writing, which I am very anxious to do, this summer. But I can’t come home unless I have something sure here to come back to, — you understand.

I am feeling much rested, — & all keyed up to go to work — but, oh, I am so homesick to see you, dear, & Mother, — & the garden & everything! — Never mind, if I have good luck I shall come home, — unless I have to begin work at once.

She excitedly signs the letter with her newly earned academic degree:

Vincent
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, A.B.!)

Millay, in fact, donned the cap and gown not once but twice in her lifetime. Exactly twenty years later, she received an honorary degree from NYU.

1937 Honorary Degree Recipients with Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase. Edna St. Vincent Millay appears in front row, center.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a treasure trove in its entirety, full of timelessly delightful wit and wisdom from one of literary history’s most remarkable figures.

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culture  books  Edna_St._Vincent_Millay  education  history  letters  from google
june 2013 by rcr1956
Advice for Travel and Life: Founding Father Benjamin Rush’s 14 Rules for His Young Son, 1796
“Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you.”

Founding father and American Enlightenment leader Benjamin Rush (1745 — 1813) is among the most diversely influential figures in modern history — he signed the Declaration of Independence and championed many reforms; he opposed slavery and capital punishment at a time when it was fashionable to favor them; he pioneered the free American public school and helped found five institutions of higher learning; he proposed a new model of education for women that included sciences, history, and moral philosophy; he worked for the humane treatment of the mentally ill; he was the first American to hold the title of professor of chemistry (at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania) and published the first American chemistry textbook; and he served as the treasurer of the United States Mint for sixteen years.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, painted by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us some of history’s greatest motherly advice and Sherwood Anderson’s counsel on the creative life — comes this letter Rush and his wife Julia sent to their twenty-one-year-old son John, the eldest of their thirteen children, after he finished a medical apprenticeship with his father and headed to India to practice his newly acquired skills. Despite the overwhelming religiosity of the letter — a reflection above all of the era’s monoculture — Rush’s advice on the four pillars of the good life includes timeless wisdom on the art of acquiring knowledge and reading books well, the benefits of keeping of diary, the importance of studying geography, and even primitive inklings of Michael Pollan’s modern food rules.

Directions and advice to Jno. Rush from his father and mother composed the evening before he sailed for Calcutta, May 18th, 1796

We shall divide these directions into four heads, as they relate to morals, knowledge, health, and business.

I. MORALS

1. Be punctual in committing your soul and body to the protection of your Creator every morning and evening. Implore at the same time his mercy in the name of his Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

2. Read in your Bible frequently, more especially on Sundays.

3. Avoid swearing and even an irreverent use of your Creator’s name. Flee youthful lusts.

4. Be courteous and gentle in your behavior to your fellow passengers, and respectful and obedient to the captain of the vessel.

5. Attend public worship regularly every Sunday when you arrive at Calcutta.

II. KNOWLEDGE

1. Begin by studying Guthrie’s Geography.

2. Read your other books through carefully, and converse daily upon the subjects of your reading.

3. Keep a diary of every day’s studies, conversations, and transactions at sea and on shore. Let it be composed in a fair, legible hand. Insert in it an account of the population, manners, climate, diseases, &c., of the places you visit.

4. Preserve an account of every person’s name and disease whom you attend.

III. HEALTH

1. Be temperate* in eating, more especially of animal food. Never taste distilled spirits of any kind, and drink fermented liquors very sparingly.

2. Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let your dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind.

IV. BUSINESS

1. Take no step in laying out your money without the advice and consent of the captain or supercargo. Let no solicitations prevail with you to leave the captain and supercargo during your residence in Calcutta.

2. Keep an exact account of all your expenditures. Preserve as vouchers of them all your bills.

3. Take care of all your instruments, books, clothes, &c.

Be sober and vigilant. Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you. Recollect further that you are always under the eye of the Supreme Being. One more consideration shall close this parting testimony of our affection. Whenever you are tempted to do an improper thing, fancy that you see your father and mother kneeling before you and imploring you with tears in their eyes to refrain from yielding to the temptation, and assuring you at the same time that your yielding to it will be the means of hurrying them to a premature grave.

Benjn Rush
Julia Rush

* Rush was in fact a vehement proponent of temperance and designed “A Moral and Physical Thermometer” six years prior to penning the letter to his son:

Sadly, John was either ill-equipped to or chose not to follow his parents’ advice. John’s adult life was plagued by mental instability and, though he became a surgeon, his medical career was mediocre at most. Three years before his father’s death, John killed a friend in a duel and went insane. He was institutionalized at the Pennsylvania Hospital, his father’s place of work, where he remained for twenty-seven years until his last breath in 1837.

Posterity, however, is full of timeless epistolary wisdom from and to historical characters of decidedly more hopeful fates than John’s.

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culture  psychology  Benjamin_Rush  books  history  letters  philosophy  from google
june 2013 by rcr1956
New research shows that asking for a precise number during negotiations can give you the upper hand
NEW YORK — With so much on the line for job seekers in this difficult economic climate, a lot of new hires might be wondering how — or whether at all — to negotiate salary when offered a new position. A recently published study on the art of negotiation by two professors at Columbia Business School could help these new hires — and all negotiators — seal a stronger deal than before.
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Culture  from google
may 2013 by rcr1956
The Power of Process: What Young Mozart Teaches Us About the Secret of Cultivating Genius
On the “powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

“The trick to creativity … is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time,” observed Denise Shekerjian in reflecting on her insightful interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees. “Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” attested Thomas Edison. “It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Alexander Graham Bell proclaimed. And yet our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that genius is a “God”-given blessing.

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (public library), David Shenk presents a rigorously researched blend of historical evidence and scientific data to debunk the myth that genius is a special gift serendipitously bestowed upon the chosen few and shows, instead, that it is the product of consistent, concentrated effort, applied in the direction of one’s natural inclination. But beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, Shenk stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement. He gives “the mystifying boy genius” Mozart as a prime example:

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart (public domain)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [was] alleged to be an instant master performer at age three and a brilliant composer at age five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.”

The reality about Mozart turns out to be far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early achievements — while very impressive, to be sure — actually make good sense considering his extraordinary upbringing. And his later undeniable genius turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for the power of process. Mozart was bathed in music from well before his birth, and his childhood was quite unlike any other. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was [assistant music director]; the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Uniquely situated, and desperate to make some sort of lasting mark on music, Leopold began his family musical enterprise even before Wolfgang’s birth, focusing first on his daughter Nannerl.

[…]

Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got — only much earlier and even more intensively. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. As soon as he was able, he sat beside her at the harpsichord and mimicked notes that she played. Wolfgang’s first pings and plucks were just that. But with a fast-developing ear, deep curiosity and a tidal wave of family know-how, he was able to click into an accelerated process of development.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

But buried in Shenk’s argument for the power of nurture is also a subtle but menacing dark side that speaks to the power of how social norms and gender expectations shape the investment in nurture:

As Wolfgang became fascinated with playing music, his father became fascinated with his toddler son’s fascination — and was soon instructing him with an intensity that far eclipsed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was not a quixotic adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in that regard.

From age three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint.

How many genius-level female composers never received this “powerful blend” we’ll never know. But the bigger point in The Genius in All of Us resonates loud and clear: To reap the fruits of genius, we must plant the seeds of practice and process.

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art  culture  music  book  creativity  history  from google
may 2013 by rcr1956
How to Create the Perfect Wife
How an 18th-century bachelor enlisted Rousseau’s teachings in Frankensteining his better-ever half.

In the spring of 1769, twenty-one-year old Thomas Day received a letter informing him that his fiancée was breaking up with him. Margaret, the attractive, cultured, and spirited sister of a friend he had met the summer before, was clearly no match for the awkward, sullen, and serious Day, who had resolved at a young age to live a hermetic life with a devoted wife at his side. Margaret’s ultimate folly wasn’t that she was in every way incompatible with Day, but instead that she had been corrupted by the world by simply living in it.

Women were “universally shallow, fickle, illogical, and untrustworthy.” But Thomas Day wasn’t bitter. He had simply thought he could bend the will of a grown woman into his perfect partner. He would have to experiment with a less fully formed individual. He wrote to a friend:

There is a little Girl of about thirteen upon whose Mind I shall have in my Power to make the above mentioned Experiment … she is innocent, & unprejudic’d; she has seen nothing of the World,& is unattach’d to it.

“Since he had not found the right woman,” writes Wendy Moore in How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate (public library), “the right woman simply did not exist.” Much like Pygmalion, or perhaps even Dr. Frankenstein, Thomas Day would have to create her.

'Pygmalion and Galatea' by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1890. In Ovid’s 'Metamorphosis,' Venus grants the artist Pygmalion a beautiful wife by bringing his sculpture to life. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Thomas Day had a plan for his perfect wife: he would train her according to the principles of John-Jacques Rousseau, whose novel Émile outlined a radical new form of education. When they were born, children had previously been blemished with original sin, but Rousseau maintained that a young child was essentially perfect, it was the world that corrupted. “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things,” he wrote, “everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

In Émile, Rousseau explained that children should learn through play and discovery, not rote memorization, which was the vogue in classrooms of the day (and, sadly, of today to a large degree). They should be encouraged and nurtured, allowed to take part in scientific experiments, but also should experience the harsh elements, such as cold and hunger, to strengthen their character. (Rousseau didn’t care to test his methods on his own flesh and blood: the five children he had out of wedlock with his mistress were sent directly to the orphanage.) In the novel, young Émile is successfully brought up according to these rules, but when he goes in search of his mate, her education has been less well-planned: the perfect wife for Émile was “a simple, artless, country maid”

'An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby,' 1768. The children present at this experiment reflect the Enlightenment education promoted by Rousseau. (National Gallery, London)

Day wanted a wife who was a magical joining of the two: the intelligence of Émile, and the unquestioning obedience of a country maid. At twenty-one, after his rebuff by Margaret, Day came into his considerable inheritance and determined that it was time to begin his experiment. He went to the foundling hospital and picked up two girls of eleven and twelve, under the assumption that they would be maids in a friend’s household. He gave them new names, Sabrina and Lucrecia, new clothes, and a new life, sweeping them off to France, where he began their new education.

There he taught the girls reading, writing, and arithmetic, and also had them perform all the household duties of a maid. In less than a year, he determined that Lucrecia was “invincibly stupid” and sent her to apprentice with a milliner, providing her with a generous dowry of £400 (about $96,000 today). The intelligent and obedient Sabrina would be his wife.

Day ramped up his education, beginning trials of endurance that Rousseau had claimed would turn boys into men: Day poured hot wax into Sabrina’s arms; he threw her into a lake, unable to swim; and he fired unloaded pistols at her to accustom her to loud noises. He would also test her “feminine” will by giving her a new dress, the first she ever had, and commanding her to throw it into the fire and watch it burn.

'Thomas Day,' by Joseph Wright, 1770. Painted when he was 22 and deeply invested in the upbringing of thirteen-year-old Sabrina as his wife. (National Portrait Gallery, London))

The tests left Sabrina confused, angry, and willful. Her education made little sense, as did her place in Day’s household, where he continued to tell her he was training her as a housekeeper. At fourteen, an age when her “wifely” qualities should have bloomed, Sabrina was no closer to Day’s perfection. Annoyed, he packed her off to boarding school, providing her with an allowance and a dowry, but otherwise discarding her as a failure.

Day would eventually marry a devoted woman that he could order around as he pleased, and Sabrina at twenty-six married one of his close friends. At the age of forty-one, Thomas Day was thrown from his horse and never regained consciousness. A strong believer in animal rights, he had failed to properly break the horse.

How to Create the Perfect Wife is the tale of a modern Pygmalion, whose intentions, however misguided, reflected an extraordinary age of educational reform for children, male and female alike. Writing to a friend about his former fiancée Margaret before he began his lifelong quest to train a wife, he had and uncharacteristic moment of insight that would have served him in his desire for a perfect partner: “I loved an imaginary being.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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culture  books  history  women  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
Hemingway on Writing, Knowledge, and the Dangers of Ego
“All bad writers are in love with the epic.”

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” Hemingway proclaimed in his short and memorable 1954 Nobel acceptance speech. In Death in the Afternoon (public library) — Hemingway’s exquisite 1932 meditation on the tradition of bullfighting, “the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty” of which served as profound inspiration for his art — the celebrated author offers some timeless wisdom on the discipline, dignity, and craft of writing.

In an observation particularly applicable to the sensationalist faux-grandeur of web journalism, Hemingway admonishes against the cult of the epic:

This too to remember. If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax or grammar to make an effect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly. Mysticism implies a mystery and there are many mysteries; but incompetence is not one of them; nor is overwritten journalism made literature by the injection of a false epic quality. Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.

Unlike the essayist, who E. B. White has argued is necessarily an egotist, the novel writer should write herself out of the story, yet her characters should spring to life from the wholeness of her being:

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the novel. If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing off. No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. For a writer to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed characters which are more remunerative when issued as people in a novel is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature. People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time.

Hemingway recognizes the combinatorial nature of creativity and notes that the most vital of knowledge, which is also the simplest, is borrowed and assimilated through the art of observation and accumulated simply by being awake to the world and then combined and built upon in the work an author calls her own:

A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave. Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from.

And yet, just like the art of conversation, the art of writing is ruined equally by parading the writer’s knowledge and by obfuscating the lack thereof:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he is anxious to make people see he is formally educated, cultured or well-bred is merely a popinjay. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.

For more wisdom on writing, see Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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culture  Ernest_Heminway  writing  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
Frida Kahlo’s Passionate Hand-Written Love Letters to Diego Rivera
“Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.”

Mexican painter and reconstructionist Frida Kahlo is among the most remarkable figures of contemporary culture. At a young age, she contracted polio, which left her right leg underdeveloped — an imperfection she’d later come to disguise with her famous colorful skirts. A decade later, as one of only thirty-five female students at Mexico’s prestigious Preparatoria school, she was in a serious traffic accident, which resulted in multiple body fractures and internal lesions inflicted by an iron rod that had pierced her stomach and uterus. It took her three months in full-body cast to recover and though she eventually willed her way to walking again, she spent the rest of her life battling frequent relapses of extreme pain and enduring frequent hospital visits, including more than thirty operations. As a way of occupying herself while bedridden, Kahlo made her first strides in painting — then went on to become one of the most influential painters in modern art.

Two years after the accident, in 1927, she met the painter Diego River, whose work she’d come to admire and who became her mentor. In 1929, despite the vocal protestations of Kahlo’s mother, Frida and Diego were wedded and one of art history’s most notoriously tumultuous marriages commenced. Both had multiple affairs, the most notable of which for bisexual Kahlo were with French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. And yet her bond with Diego was one of transcendental passion and immense love.

Kahlo’s love letters to Rivera, found in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) and stretching across the twenty-seven-years span of their relationship, bespeak the profound and abiding connection the two shared, brimming with the seething cauldron of emotion with which all fully inhabited love is filled: elation, anguish, devotion, desire, longing, joy. In their breathless intensity, they soar in the same stratosphere of love letters as those exchanged between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, and Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

Diego.
Truth is, so great, that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or listen, or love. To feel myself trapped, with no fear of blood, outside time and magic, within your own fear, and your great anguish, and within the very beating of your heart. All this madness, if I asked it of you, I know, in your silence, there would be only confusion. I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth. I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love.

F.

Diego:

Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.

Auxochrome — Chromophore. Diego.

She who wears the color.
He who sees the color.
Since the year 1922.

Until always and forever. Now in 1944. After all the hours lived through. The vectors continue in their original direction. Nothing stops them. With no more knowledge than live emotion. With no other wish than to go on until they meet. Slowly. With great unease, but with the certainty that all is guided by the “golden section.” There is cellular arrangement. There is movement. There is light. All centers are the same. Folly doesn’t exist. We are the same as we were and as we will be. Not counting on idiotic destiny.

My Diego:

Mirror of the night

Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands.

All of you in a space full of sounds — in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE — the one who gives color.

You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement. You fulfill and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are my light.

Auxochrome — Chromophore

It was the thirst of many years restrained in our body. Chained words which we could not say except on the lips of dreams. Everything was surrounded by the green miracle of the landscape of your body. Upon your form, the lashes of the flowers responded to my touch, the murmur of streams. There was all manner of fruits in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate, the horizon of the mammee and the purified pineapple. I pressed you against my breast and the prodigy of your form penetrated all my blood through the tips of my fingers. Smell of oak essence, memories of walnut, green breath of ash tree. Horizon and landscapes = I traced them with a kiss. Oblivion of words will form the exact language for understanding the glances of our closed eyes. = You are here, intangible and you are all the universe which I shape into the space of my room. Your absence springs trembling in the ticking of the clock, in the pulse of light; you breathe through the mirror. From you to my hands, I caress your entire body, and I am with you for a minute and I am with myself for a moment. And my blood is the miracle which runs in the vessels of the air from my heart to yours.

The green miracle of the landscape of my body becomes in your the whole of nature. I fly through it to caress the rounded hills with my fingertips, my hands sink into the shadowy valleys in an urge to possess and I’m enveloped in the embrace of gentle branches, green and cool. I penetrate the sex of the whole earth, her heat chars me and my entire body is rubbed by the freshness of the tender leaves. Their dew is the sweat of an ever-new lover.

It’s not love, or tenderness, or affection, it’s life itself, my life, that I found what I saw it in your hands, in your month and in your breasts. I have the taste of almonds from your lips in my mouth. Our worlds have never gone outside. Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.

Your presence floats for a moment or two as if wrapping my whole being in an anxious wait for the morning. I notice that I’m with you. At that instant still full of sensations, my hands are sunk in oranges, and my body feels surrounded by your arms.

For my Diego

the silent life giver of worlds, what is most important is the nonillusion. morning breaks, the friendly reds, the big blues, hands full of leaves, noisy birds, fingers in the hair, pigeons’ nests a rare understanding of human struggle simplicity of the senseless song the folly of the wind in my heart = don’t let them rhyme girl = sweet xocolatl [chocolate] of ancient Mexico, storm in the blood that comes in through the mouth — convulsion, omen, laughter and sheer teeth needles of pearl, for some gift on a seventh of July, I ask for it, I get it, I sing, sang, I’ll sing from now on our magic — love.

Pair The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait with more exquisite love letters by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Balzac, Rilke, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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art  culture  books  Frida_Kahlo  history  letters  love  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
Legendary Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Future of Music, Harvard 1973
“A great new era of eclecticism is at hand.”

In the fall of 1972, legendary composer Leonard Bernstein was appointed the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, his alma mater — a position originally created in 1925 to bring celebrated poets as campus residents and student advisors and previously occupied by such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and Robert Frost. In 1973, Bernstein delivered his sextet of lucid lectures, aimed at an intelligent listened not musically trained but keenly interested in how music works and how to listen to music.

Titled The Unanswered Question, the lectures — covering Musical Phonology, Musical Syntax, Musical Semantics, The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity, The Twentieth Century Crisis, and The Poetry of Earth — spanned more than 11 hours, all of which are now available online. In 1976, they were transcribed in the eponymous book The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (public library).

Bernstein ends the series with a kind of summation of his credo, one he leaves out — or, rather, modifies and makes less prophetic — in the book:

I believe that a great new era of eclecticism is at hand — eclecticism in the highest sense — and I believe that it has been made possible by the rediscovery, the reacceptance of tonality, that universal earth out of which such diversity can spring. And no matter how serial, or stochastic, or otherwise intellectualized music may be, it can always qualify as poetry, as long as it is rooted in Earth. … I believe that from that Earth emerges a musical poetry, which is by the nature of its sources tonal. I believe that these sources cause to exist a phonology of music, which evolves from the universal known as the harmonic series — and that there is an equally universal musical syntax, which can be codified and structured in terms of symmetry and repetition; and that by metaphorical operation, there can be devised particular musical languages that have surface structures noticeably remote from their basic origins, but which can be strikingly expressive as long as they retain their roots in Earth.

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones, but do not preclude additional responses, which are conditioned or learned; and that all particular languages bear on one another and combine into always-new idioms perceptible to human beings; and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind; and that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And, finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that [the] “unanswered question” has an answer. I’m no longer sure what the question is, but I do know the answer — and the answer is, “Yes.”

Complement The Unanswered Question with David Byrne on how music works and this lovely vintage guide to the 7 essential skills of listening.

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culture  music  history  Leonard_Bernstein  poetry  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
L-carnitine significantly improves patient outcomes following heart attack
Rochester, MN, April 12, 2013 – L-carnitine significantly improves cardiac health in patients after a heart attack, say a multicenter team of investigators in a study published today in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Their findings, based on analysis of key controlled trials, associate L-carnitine with significant reduction in death from all causes and a highly significant reduction in ventricular arrhythmias and anginal attacks following a heart attack, compared with placebo or control.
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Culture  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
Anne Sexton’s Report Card
“She had little patience for studying … she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys.”

Thomas Edison was once called “addled” by his teachers and dropped out of school after only three months of formal education, then forever changed the course of technology and earned himself a Congressional Gold Medal. Benjamin Franklin dropped out of school at the age of ten after two years of study, then went on to become a polymath and a Founding Father. Albert Einstein flunked out of high school at the age of fifteen, then proceeded to build the foundation of quantum theory and win the Nobel Prize in physics. The list goes on, but hardly does the evidence for the disconnect between academic performance and genius get more delightfully visceral than in Anne Sexton’s report card, found in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library):

In the prologue to the first section of the book, covering Sexton’s early letters, Linda Gray Sexton, Anne’s daughter, and Lois Ames quote Anne’s own autobiographical recollection:

I went to Wellesley public schools, then to private schools, then back to public. By the third grade, my parents were told to give up on me. I’d never learn anything.

The editors paint a fuller picture:

When she reached the fifth grade, the school insisted that she repeat the year and she did. But the loss of familiar schoolmates left her feeling more isolated and unappreciated.

At one point, her teachers and the school authorities urged Anne’s parents to get psychiatric treatment for her. When the Harveys indicated their reluctance to embark upon such a threatening course, the school warned them that Anne might experience emotional problems later in life. Mary and Ralph Harvey decided to wait.

But Anne was masterful at disguising her suffering, both academic and emotional, with vigor:

She had little patience for studying; a precocious, headstrong adolescent, she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys. Her classmates remember her as happy, vivacious, and popular, but underneath, she later claimed, lurked exquisite pain which found an outlet in her role as the class rogue, one who laughingly braved all authority. Although her carelessness and lack of attention were the qualities most often mentioned by her various teachers, many of her report cards remarked on her verbal ability and intellectual agility as well.

Though Anne went on to become one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and thus unsnarling the mythic correlation between early academic excellence and lasting cultural influence, she never transcended her teachers’ mental health admonitions. On October 4, 1974, at the height of her literary acclaim, Sexton had lunch with her editor to go over the final manuscript of her forthcoming poetry collection The Awful Rowing Toward God. She then returned home, put on her mother’s old fur coat, and stripped her fingers bare of rings. With a glass of vodka in hand, she walked into the garage, locked the door behind her, and started the engine of the car, ending her life by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45.

One has to wonder when our broken education system will finally recognize that learning the essential skills of mental health has much further-reaching, lifelong benefits than performing well on standardized tests of vacant memorization.

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culture  psychology  Anne_Sexton  books  education  history  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
Isaac Asimov on Curiosity, Taking Risk, and the Value of Space Exploration in Muppets Magazine
“To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.”

In the summer of 1983, Muppet Magazine invited science fiction icon Isaac Asimov — sage of science, champion of creativity in education, visionary of the future, lover of libraries — to “a meeting of the minds,” wherein Dr. Julius Strangepork would interview Asimov. Despite the silly tone of German-inspired Strangepork-speak, the wide-ranging conversation touches on a number of timeless and surprisingly timely issues.

Three decades before the precarious state of space exploration we face today, as NASA is implementing new “cost-saving measures” at the expense of education and public outreach, Asimov speaks to the enormous cultural benefits of space exploration:

Dr. S: Personally, I like hanging around in space. I mean, it beats vatching reruns of de Brady Bunch. But how do you convince other people dat we should be schpending all dis money on space exploration?

Dr. A: By pointing out the benefits. The more we know about the solar system, the better we understand the earth. The very instruments we develop to explore the planets mean that we have better technology for use here on earth.

We now have weather satellites that tell us, for the first time in history, what the weather on the earth as a whole is like. Until we had these weather satellites, forecasting was nothing more than a local guess. We have satellites that study the resources of the earth, so that we know a great deal more about, for instance, where there are sick forests, or where grain is being attacked by some sort of disease, or how to locate oil. And, of course, communication satellites have bound the entire earth together.

On the relationship between space exploration and peace on earth:

I don’t think we can really advance into space until we learn how to cooperate as a planet. It’s not practical to have several different nations jostling and competing their way into space. It’s too expensive, too wasteful, and the benefits aren’t big enough unless they are for the entire planet.

On science fiction as lubricant for change:

My own feeling is hat science fiction, of all the different forms of literature, is the one that most easily accepts the notion of change. Things are changing very quickly, and any kid who thinks about it knows that the world in which he or she will be a grown-up — which he or she will be helping to run — will be considerably different from this one. Maybe better, maybe worse, but different. Science fiction explores the future world.

I think more and more young people are beginning to feel that science fiction is the kind of literature that a person interested in reality should be reading.

On using precaution in balancing the risks and rewards of taking a chance:

There is always some risk [in discovery], but you learn to take precautions. When Benjamin Franklin flew his kite in a storm, suspecting that lightning was an electrical discharge, he realized perfectly well that he could get one grandaddy of a shock. But he didn’t just hold the string of the kite. He tied a silken thread to the string and he held the silk because he knew that silk does not conduct electricity. And he stood under a shed to stay dry. … He was taking a certain chance. But he took precautions. He experimented and he did his homework. Another guy tried it in much the same way Franklin did, and lightning jumped from the string of the kite and zapped him.

On the power of curiosity:

To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.

Complement with Asimov’s 1991 essay collection The Secret of the Universe (public library).

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culture  politics  science  interview  Isaac_Asimov  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
The Science of How Your Mind-Wandering Is Robbing You of Happiness
Why the secret of life remains in the living.

“The main thing is to get what little happiness there is out of life in this wartorn world,” Clare Boothe Luce advised her young daughter, “because ‘these are the good old days’ now.” And yet most of us are conditioned to escape into the past, into the future, into our to-do lists — to wander off away from the present, even as we chronicle the moment in real-time on various lifestreaming platforms.

If you’ve read any of these seven essential books on happiness or taken the sage advice of Jackson Pollock’s dad, the research findings from his Track Your Happiness project Matt Killingsworth shares in his TEDxCambridge talk will be of no surprise. Still, there’s something grounding about the unequivocal empirical evidence of something most of us intuit on some level, often with great discomfort:

People are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, no matter what they’re doing.

Strikingly enough, that mind-wandering is a cause rather than a consequence of unhappiness is at once jarring and heartening — it suggests that by training our minds to be more fully present, we’d be honing our capacity for happiness, something Eastern philosophy has long maintained. But perhaps the most surprising and most commanding finding is that even when people’s minds wander off to pleasant things, they’re less happy than when they are fully present in the moment:

Remind yourself of what it’s like to celebrate the present with history’s greatest moments of everyday happiness, then reel yourself back into the moment with a lesson in immersive living from Henry Miller.

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culture  psychology  science  happiness  TED  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
Improving the Peer-Review Process in Medical Publishing
>

Researchers propose streamlining the review process for rejected manuscripts by including the initial reviews when submitting the revised manuscript to another journal, reasoning this would expedite the decision process and decrease the burden on peer reviewers.

In their analysis of the practices of 51 general medical journals surveyed online, researchers find that a quarter of journals at least occasionally receive previous peer-review reports from authors submitting manuscripts, and about one-half indicated an interest in the idea. Editors reported both pros and cons.

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Culture  from google
april 2013 by rcr1956
Iconic Designer Henry Dreyfuss on Beauty, Serenity, and Shaping Public Taste
“Man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty.”

The role of the singer, argued Lilli Lehmann in 1902, is to educate people about good music. The role of the writer, argued E. B. White in 1969, is to educate people about good writing. In his 1955 classic Designing for People (public library), legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, mastermind of such cultural staples as the very first answering machine and the once-ubiquitous Hoover vacuum cleaner, considers the role of the designer as a tastemaker, educating the public about what constitutes good design.

Dreyfuss writes:

It is my contention that well-designed, mass-produced goods constitute a new American art form and are responsible for the creation of a new American culture. These products of the applied arts are a part of everyday American living and working, not merely museum pieces to be seen on a Sunday afternoon.

I find no basic conflict between those who appreciate the fine arts and those who respond to classic examples of the applied arts. They are stirred by the same impulse, a desire for beauty.

[…]

Public taste, as used here, embraces a heterogeneous mass of people, not any particular income group or educational level. Some will be moved by a Van Gogh, others will feel elation at the sight of a sleek jet plane. Exposure to a fine piece of sculpture is likely to create in a person an awareness of the excellent lines of a thermos jug or a lamp, and vice versa. Thus, when a good design is mass-produced, its influence is tremendous. This impact will be translated into an improvement in people’s taste when they go shopping. Unconsciously, a person’s contact with beauty quickens and heightens his perception and taste for all forms of art.

Guided by a certain belief in human aspiration and the conviction that “the American people will listen to good music, if given the chance,” Dreyfuss observes the capacity for betterment that technology affords us — a prescient vision for what the internet, too, could empower if used wisely:

It may be recalled that, at the inception of radio, fear was expressed that people would stop going to concerts if they could hear the same symphonies in their homes without cost. Yet concert-hall box-office receipts are proof that radio has educated a huge audience to good music. There is reason to believe that television, particularly color television, will do the same for art, literature, education, history, and the crafts. Already, able critics and teachers are guiding the uninitiated into these provocative realms. A half-hour’s tour through a museum with a TV camera can bring to life a wealth of art and knowledge that could otherwise not be seen in months.

Furthering his faith in the common capacity for good taste, Dreyfuss champions the life-enriching power of beauty:

Most people have inherent good taste, but they can’t be expected to use it if they can’t find good things, Many persons are intimidated by what the stores and advertisements tell them is the proper thing. Many want what their neighbors have. But given an opportunity to have fine things, people generally choose them.

[…]

It would be fatuous to assume that every man is constantly aware of the details of his surroundings. I do not believe this to be true. But I am convinced that a well-set dinner table will aid the flow of gastric juices; that a well-lighted and planned classroom is conducive to study; that carefully selected colors chosen with an eye to psychological influence will develop better and more lucrative work habits for the man at the machine; that a quietly designed conference room at the United Nations headquarters might well help influence the representatives to make a calm and just decision. I believe that man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty. We find our most serene moments in great cathedrals, in the presence of fine pictures and sculpture, on a university campus, or listening to magnificent music. Industry, technology, and mass production have made it possible for the average man to surround himself with this serenity in his home and in his place of work. Perhaps it is this serenity which we need most in the world, today.

Pair this with W. I. B. Beveridge’s 1957 meditation on scientific taste and be sure to treat yourself to Designing for People, indispensable in its entirety.

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culture  design  books  design_books  Henry_Dreyfuss  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Lessons in Design and Strategy from China’s First Emperor
How to standardize, enforce accountability, and employ design thinking in coining your image and legacy.

The questions of what makes good design, what it should aspire to be, why it’s essential to culture, and how it harmonizes with human life have long occupied modern thinkers and pundits. That’s precisely what Herald Tribune design critic and writer extraordinaire Alice Rawsthorn sets out to answer in the newly released Hello World: Where Design Meets Life.

Rawsthorn begins with a necessary definition of the essence and cultural significance of design, so often misunderstood and diminished to mere decoration:

Design is a complex, often elusive phenomenon that has changed dramatically over time by adopting different guises, meanings and objectives in different contexts, but its elemental role is to act as an agent of change, which can help us to make sense of what is happening around us, and to turn it to our advantage. Every design exercise sets out to change something, whether its intention is to transform the lives of millions of people, or to make a marginal difference to one, and it does so systematically. At its best, design can ensure that changes of any type — whether they are scientific, technological, cultural, political, economic, social, environmental or behavioral — are introduced to the world in ways that are positive and empowering, rather than inhibiting or destructive.

One of Rawsthorn’s most illustrative examples comes from Ying Zheng, who took the throne as king of the Chinese State of Qin in his early teens in 246 BC and went on to become the first emperor of unified China in 221 BC. Today, he endures as one of the most formidable figures in world history, equally known for his military might and his uncompromising despotism, which included book-burning and burying scholars alive. Design, as it turns out, was his major ally, which he employed on various levels, from the practical to the tactical to the political.
One of his major feats, Rawsthorn tells us, was standardization:

The design of all weaponry was improved under Ying Zheng’s command. The optimum size, shape, choice of material and method of production for each piece was determined, and every effort made to ensure that weapons of the same type adhered to the chosen formula. The Qin army had used bronze spears for over a thousand years, but the blades were rendered shorter and broader. The dagger-axes were redesigned too. Putting six holes in the blades, rather than four, ensured that their bronze heads could be attached more securely and were less likely to shake loose in the frenzy of battle.

Even more important were the changes to Qin’s bows and arrows. Archers were critical in determining the outcome of every stage of combat in Ying Zheng’s era, but their weapons were made by hand, often to different specifications. If an archer ran out of arrows during a battle, it was generally impossible for him to fire another warrior’s arrows from his bow. Similarly, if he was killed or injured, his remaining ammunition would be useless to his comrades. And if a bow broke, that archer’s arrows risked being wasted. The same problems applied to more complex weapons like crossbows. The result was that an army’s progress was often impeded by weapons failure because its archers were unable to fight at full efficiency, if at all.

With standardization also came a new level of production accountability:

Ying Zheng’s forces resolved these problems by standardizing the design of their bows and arrows. The shaft of each arrow had to be a precise length, and the head to be formed in a triangular prism, always of the same size and shape. The components of longbows and crossbows were made identical too, and these design formulas were rigidly enforced. Each piece of government equipment was branded with a distinctive mark to identify who had made it and in which workshop. If a particular weapon was deemed substandard, the offending artisans would be fined, and punished more severely if the problem recurred.

But Ying Zheng didn’t stop at weaponry. Next, he rebranded his very persona, renaming himself Qin Shihuangdi, or “First Emperor of China,” and employed design in shaping various aspects of culture and commerce, from literacy to currency, even enforcing his own reputation by way of early propaganda design:

A unified system of coinage was introduced, as were standardized weights and measures, a universal legal code and common method of writing. These changes made daily life more orderly, and boosted the economy by making it easier for people from different regions to trade. They also had a symbolic importance in helping to persuade the new emperor’s subjects, many of whom had fought against his army in battle, or had family or friends who had died doing so, that they had a personal stake in his immense domain. Take the new coins. Every time a farmer or a carpenter used them, they saw a tangible reminder that they themselves were part of a dynamic new empire, and had good reason to feel grateful to its visionary founder and ruler.

[…]

He also made sure that the inhabitants of even the most remote regions knew of his power and achievements by ordering descriptions of his feats to be carved into mountains across China.

This use of design strategy, in fact, was a primitive example of the buzzworthy concept currently known as “design thinking”:

Qin Shihuangdi [identified] what he needed to do to secure the future of his regime, and to communicate the results to his subjects. There are parallels between his strategic use of design and its role in successful corporate identity programs, such as Nike’s, and communication exercises like Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns.

But Qin Shihuangdi’s greatest design feat was the application of design as a medium of self-expression, specifically in the preservation of his legacy. He commanded the construction of a monumental burial chamber — a massive underground palace spanning over twenty square miles on Mount Li, discovered there accidentally by farmers in 1974. Its construction was so demanding and grueling that many of the workers died in the process of it and were buried on the site. Rawsthorn explains:

Just as Qin Shihuangdi had deployed design with extreme efficiency to amass wealth and power during his life, he used it to secure what he believed would be an equally resplendent death, by creating the afterlife of his fantasies, which served a practical purpose too. Building such an outlandishly extravagant burial site was so eloquent a testimony of his might that it reinforced it as effectively as his celestially planned palaces, mountain inscriptions and the new imperial currency. But it was also a physical manifestation of the inner world of his imagination, a material expression of how China’s first emperor saw himself, and wished to define his place in history, which presaged contemporary design spectacles such as Olympic Games opening ceremonies, the Arirang Festivals in North Korea and the elaborate sets of Chanel’s haute couture shows at the Grand Palais in Paris.

[…]

Yet unlike latter-day design tacticians such as Apple, Chanel, Nike, Barack Obama’s campaign advisors and the despotic Kim dynasty, Qin Shihuangdi conceived and executed his design feats entirely instinctively.

Hello World is compelling in its entirety, spanning such varied yet interrelated illustrations of design as the London Underground and the breeding of dogs.

Coin photograph courtesy The British Museum

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culture  design  books  history  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
A Calendar of Wisdom: Tolstoy on Knowledge and the Meaning of Life
“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.”

On this day in 1884, Leo Tolstoy, wrote in his diary:

I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people.

So he set out to compile “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people” — a florilegium five centuries after the golden age of florilegia and a Tumblr a century and a half before the golden age of Tumblr, a collection of famous words on the meaning of life long before the concept had become a cultural trope. The following year, he wrote to his assistant, describing the project:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

Russian sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov (1881-1952) working on his statue of Leo Tolstoy. (Public domain, Library of Congress)

Tolstoy spent the next seventeen years collecting those pieces of wisdom. In 1902, in his late seventies, seriously ill and confronting mortality, he finally sat down to write the book under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. Once he sent the manuscript to his publisher, he returned to the diary and exhaled:

I felt that I have been elevated to great spiritual and moral heights by communication with the best and wisest people whose books I read and whose thoughts I selected for my Circle of Reading.

Retitled to Thoughts of Wise Men, the book was first published in 1904, followed closely by an expanded and reorganized edition titled A Calendar of Wisdom, in which the quotes were organized around specific daily themes and which included several hundred of Tolstoy’s own thoughts. It wasn’t until 1997 that the compendium received its first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, titled A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library).

Tolstoy writes in the introduction:

I hope that the readers of this book may experience the same benevolent and elevating feeling which I have experienced when I was working on its creation, and which I experience again and again, when I reread it every day, working on the enlargement and improvement of the previous edition.

Running through the book are several big-picture threads that string together the different quotations. One of them is Tolstoy’s intense preoccupation with the acquisition and architecture of knowledge, ignorance, and the meaning of life. Here are several of the insights he culls from other thinkers, along with the respective days of the year to which Tolstoy assigned them:

Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.

What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library! A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years, can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us. The thought which they might not even reveal to their best friends is written here in clear words for us, people from another century. Yes, we should be grateful for the best books, for the best spiritual achievements in our lives.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 1)

Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.

(Henry David Thoreau, January 1)

Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory.

Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.

(Henry David Thoreau, January 9)

A constant flow of thoughts expressed by other people can stop and deaden your own thought and your own initiative…. That is why constant learning softens your brain…. Stopping the creation of your own thoughts to give room for the thoughts from other books reminds me of Shakespeare’s remark about his contemporaries who sold their land in order to see other countries.

(Arthur Schopenhauer, January 9)

Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life. At present, people study useless sciences, but forget to study this, the most important knowledge.

(Jean Jaques Rousseau, March 16)

Science can be divided into an infinite number of disciplines, and the amount of knowledge that can be pursued in each discipline is limitless. The most critical piece of knowledge, then, is the knowledge of what is essential to learn and what isn’t.

A huge amount of knowledge is accumulated at present. Soon our abilities will be too weak, and our lives too short, to study this knowledge. We have vast treasures of knowledge at our disposal but after we study them, we often do not use them at all. It would be better not to have this burden, this unnecessary knowledge, which we do not really need.

(Immanuel Kant, April 1)

What is important is not the quantity of your knowledge, but its quality. You can know many things without knowing that which is most important.

There are two types of ignorance, the pure, natural ignorance into which all people are born, and the ignorance of the so-called wise. You will see that many among those who call themselves scholars do not know real life, and they despise simple people and simple things.

(Blaise Pascal, April 18)

There is only one real knowledge: that which helps us to be free. Every other type of knowledge is mere amusement.

(Vishnu Purana, Indian Wisdom, June 23)

The way to true knowledge does not go through soft grass covered with flowers. To find it, a person must climb steep mountains.

(Josh Ruskin, September 20)

A sage is not afraid of lack of knowledge: he is not afraid of hesitations, or hard work, but he is afraid of only one thing — to pretend to know the things which he does not know.

You should study more to understand that you know little.

(Michel de Montaigne, October 1)

The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.

(Seneca, November 14)

Russian sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov (1881-1952) working on his statue of Leo Tolstoy. (Public domain, Library of Congress)

But most poignant of all are Tolstoy’s own thoughts, which appear after the collected quotations on various days. A sampling:

The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive. (January 1)

A thought can advance your life in the right direction only when it answers questions which were asked by your soul. A thought which was first borrowed from someone else and then accepted by your mind and memory does not really much influence your life, and sometimes leads you in the wrong direction. Read less, study less, but think more.

Learn, both from your teachers and from the books which you read, only those things which you really need and which you really want to know. (January 9)

A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.

There are a limitless number of different sciences, but without one basic science, that is, what is the meaning of life and what is good for the people, all other forms of knowledge and art become idle and harmful entertainment.

We live a senseless life, contrary to the understanding of life by the wisest people of all times. This happens because our young generations are educated in the wrong way—they are taught different sciences but they are not taught the meaning of life.

The only real science is the knowledge of how a person should live his life. And this knowledge is open to everyone. (January 18)

If all knowledge were good, then pursuit of every sort of knowledge would be useful. But many false meditations are disguised as good and useful knowledge; therefore, be strict in selecting the knowledge you want to acquire. (March 16)

If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself. (March 17)

Beware of false knowledge. All evil comes from it.

Knowledge is limitless. Therefore, there is a minuscule difference between those who know a lot and those who know very little. (April 1)

Ignorance in itself is neither shameful nor harmful. Nobody can know everything. But pretending that you know what you actually do not know is both shameful and harmful. (April 18)

Every person has only one purpose: to find perfection in goodness. Therefore, only that knowledge is necessary which leads us to this. (May 3)

There are two very clear indications of real science and real art: the first inner sign is that a scholar or an artist works not for profit, but for sacrifice, for his calling; the second, outer sign is that his works are understandable to all people. Real science studies and makes accessible that knowledge which people at that period of history think important, and real art transfers this truth from the domain of knowledge to the domain of feelings.

Creating art is not as elevated a thing as many people guess, but certainly it is a useful and kind thing to do, especially if it brings people together and arouses kind feelings in them. (July 2)

It is better … [more]
culture  psychology  books  happiness  history  Leo_Tolstoy  literature  philosophy  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Joy Williams’s Daily Writing Routine
“…all messages which will fuel the morrow’s pages coming to me in friendly and artful dreams…”

This omnibus of the daily routines of famous writers endures as the second most popular Brain Pickings article of all time. (For the curious, this is the first.) From the new anthology Always Apprentices: The Believer Magazine Presents Twenty-Two Conversations Between Writers (public library) comes a beautiful contribution by novelist and essayist Joy Williams, who knows a thing or two about why writers write. Like Edison, she enjoys a good nap. Like Thoreau and Virginia Woolf, she finds creative fuel in nature. Like Henry Miller, she makes a point of seeing friends.

This is her day:

Tea and fruit in the morning, then four or five hours of solid work, a salad for lunch. A nap, in which my lost loved ones come to me and tell me they’re happy and still love me, a walk through bird-songed woods, followed by several more hours of oxygenated work. Drinks with friends, each more accomplished and interesting than the other, then bed, windows flung open to the soothing pounding of the sea, turning rock over rock, all messages which will fuel the morrow’s pages coming to me in friendly and artful dreams…

The rest of Always Apprentices, a sequel to the 2008 tome The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, offers five years’ worth of conversations with literary icons, including Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, and reconstructionist Joan Didion.

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culture  books  creativity  Joy_Williams  writing  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Wondrous the Merge: Why Love Knows No Boundaries
“At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle.”

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Big Joy — a wonderful documentary about the life of the poet, filmmaker, gay liberation champion, and counterculture hero James Broughton (1913–1999):

Though Broughton was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s and left a powerful imprint on culture with his experimental cinema and expressive poetry, what makes the film most soul-stirring of all is Broughton’s remarkable and unlikely love story.

Already twice married and the father of two daughters and a son, it wasn’t until late in life that he met his soulmate.

James was 61. Joel was 26.

Exultantly besotted, James wrote Joel in a letter:

I did not think you would come to me in this lifetime.

On April 5th, 1975, James captured in his journal, preserved at the Kent State archives, a joyously disbelieving account of their first time making love:

And it was wonderful, truly wondrous. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I can still scarcely believe it. Such mutual joy. I was half my age. Age vanished. There was only lovingness. And connecting. And ecstasy. As if this were what I had been waiting for all my life, since … Littlejohn of boyhood. And thought had long since passed all opportunity by me.

And it was suddenly here. So very here. So tenderly and strongly. At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle. It is from Hermes himself. It is a manifestation of so much that I have been feeling under surface in my soul so long: an incarnation. It had to become manifest. So much desire must create a reality.

Seven years later, in “Wondrous the Merge”, one of his many love poems for Joel, found in the sublime collection Special Deliveries: New and Selected Poems (public library), James offered a lyrical addition to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Wondrous Wondrous the merge
Wondrous the merge of soulmates
the surprises of recognition
Wondrous the flowerings of renewal
Wondrous the wings of the air
clapping their happy approval

* * *

I severed my respectabilities
and bought a yellow mobile home
in an unlikely neighborhood
He moved in his toaster his camera
and his eagerness to become
my courier seed-carrier and consort

Above all he brought the flying carpet
that upholsters his boundless embrace
Year after year he takes me soaring
out to the ecstasies of the cosmos
that await all beings in love

One day we shall not bother to return

The two remained together for 25 years, as muses for each other, until James departed this world on his flying carpet.

If you can, treat yourself to a local screening of Big Joy and consider helping the filmmakers crowdfund the film tour.

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culture  film  love  poetry  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
The Adverb Is Not Your Friend: Stephen King on Simplicity of Style
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

“Employ a simple and straightforward style,” Mark Twain instructed in the 18th of his 18 famous literary admonitions. And what greater enemy of simplicity and straightforwardness than the adverb? Or so argues Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (public library), one of 9 essential books to help you write better.

Though he may have used a handful of well-placed adverbs in his recent eloquent case for gun control, King embarks upon a forceful crusade against this malignant part of speech:

The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.

King uses the admonition against adverbs as a springboard for a wider lens on good and bad writing, exploring the interplay of fear, timidity, and affectation:

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

[…]

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior.

This latter part, touching on the contrast between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, illustrates the critical difference between working for prestige and working for purpose.

Complement On Writing with more famous wisdom on the craft from Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. P. Lovecraft, Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Mary Karr, Isabel Allende, and Susan Orlean.

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culture  language  Stephen_King  writing  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Three Poems by James Joyce
“Lightly come or lightly go … Lightly, lightly — ever so”

On a recent trip to Austin, I tickled my soft spot for rare vintage literary treasures and indulged my guilty travel pleasure: A trip to the finest local rare-books seller, in this case the lovely South Congress Books, where I discovered a fortunate first edition of James Joyce’s Collected Poems (public library). It was originally published in 1937 by The Viking Press as a limited edition of 1,000 copies and features a signed portrait of Joyce by Welsh painter and etcher Augustus John.

Here are three sublime poems, one from each of the book’s three sections.

From the first section, titled “Chamber Music” and containing 36 untitled, numbered love poems:

XXV

Lightly come or lightly go:
Though thy heart presage thee woe,
Vales and many a wasted sun,
Oread let thy laughter run,
Till the irreverent mountain air
Ripple all thy flying hair.

Lightly, lightly — ever so:
Clouds that wrap the vales below
At the hour of evenstar
Lowliest attendants are;
Love and laughter song-confessed
When the heart is heaviest.

From the second section, titled “Pomes Penyeach” — a play on the French words for apples, offered at “a penny each” — and containing 13 short poems written over the course of 20 years between 1904 and 1924:

SIMPLES

O bella bionda,
Sei come l’onda!

Of cool sweet dew and radiance mild
The moon a web of silence weaves
In the still garden where a child
Gathers the simple salad leaves.

A moondew stars her hanging hair
And moonlight kisses her young brow
And, gathering, she sings an air:
Fair as the wave is, fair, art thou!

Be mine, I pray, a waxen ear
To shield me from her childish croon
And mine a shielded heart for her
Who gathers simples of the moon.

From the final section, containing a single poem written in 1936 and previously unpublished in America:

ECCE PUER

Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!

Collected Poems was eventually reissued as a much more affordable mass-market paperback. Complement it with Joyce’s little-known children’s book and this rare 1935 edition of Ulysses featuring exquisite etchings by Henri Matisse.

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culture  books  James_Joyce  poetry  vintage  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Susan Orlean on Writing
“You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.”

The question of why writers write is one of literature’s most enduring siren calls. George Orwell ascribed it to four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), which also gave us poignant answers from Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, celebrated journalist and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean offers her wisdom on the craft.

She considers the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction, exploring the osmotic balance of escapism and inner stillness:

When it comes to nonfiction, it’s important to note the very significant difference between the two stages of the work. Stage one is reporting. Stage two is writing.

Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar.

Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.

A necessary antidote to the tortured-genius cultural mythology of the writer, Orlean, like Ray Bradbury, conceives of writing as a source of joy, even when challenging:

Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.

Echoing E. B. White, who famously admonished that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” Orlean prides herself on her situational nonchalance:

I don’t need to be in a perfectly quiet place to write. I don’t need a lot of fussy special conditions. But I do need the material that I work from within reach, and I do need a certain sense that I’m not going to be interrupted for a chunk of time.

Bespeaking the common resistance that people in creative fields tend to have towards being called an “artist,” Orlean nonetheless honors the inherent artistry of her craft:

It makes me cringe to call myself an artist.

Even if it’s true. I’m making art of a kind. At the same time I’m very pragmatic. I don’t treat myself as this precious flower. The fact that writing is a job doesn’t undercut the fact that it’s also an art.

She ends with four pieces of wisdom for writers:

You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.
You should read as much as possible. That’s the best way to learn how to write.
You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.
Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.

The rest of Why We Write features insights and advice on the craft from such contemporary icons as Jennifer Egan, Michael Lewis, and James Frey, among others. Pair it with H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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art  culture  Susan_Orlean  writing  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Virginia Woolf on How to Read a Book
“Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.”

“The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his treatise on what makes a good reader. “Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure,” advised Francine Prose in her guide to reading like a writer. “My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters are configurate, not isolate.” Henry Miller confessed in his reflections on a lifetime of reading. But how, exactly, does one read a book, and read it well? That’s precisely what Virginia Woolf addressed in a 1925 essay titled “How Should One Read a Book?,” found in The Second Common Reader (public library; public domain) — the same collection of 26 exquisite essays that gave us Woolf’s critique of criticism and a Literary Jukebox treat.

Woolf begins with the same disclaimer of subjectivity that John Steinbeck issued half a century later in his six timeless tips on writing. She writes:

The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play that Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions — there we have none.

She cautions against bringing baggage and pre-conceived notions to your reading:

[F]ew people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.

Woolf reminds us of the osmotic skills of reading and writing:

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words.

To exercise the imagination, she argues, is itself a special skill:

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.

As a hopeless lover of old diaries and letters, I was particularly taken with Woolf’s insight into the appeal of such literary voyeurism — especially given Woolf was a notable diarist herself:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

But also we can read such books with another aim, not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people, but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.

Woolf moves on to the intricacies of poetry, adding to other famous meditations on what a poem is and what makes it good:

The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then — how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing here to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight. … The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centered and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, it is true, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections. The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion.

But despite this mystical mesmerism of the experience itself, Woolf reminds us, the true gift of reading takes place in that incubation period wherein ephemeral impressions become integrated and manifest as deeper ideas:

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon those multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole.

In a testament to the notion that all creativity builds on what came before, echoing her own teenage insight on imitation and the arts and resonating with Henry Miller’s contention that “the vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas,” Woolf observes:

[W]e may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.

She argues — beautifully — for the cultivation of taste, a concept we’ve seen paralleled in science, pointing to the very tuning of this compass for excellence as the ultimate existential reward of the art of reading:

It would be foolish … to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first — to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating — that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good.’ To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself. Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our won identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathize wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, ‘I hate, I love,’ and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts — poetry, fiction, history, biography — and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective.

In a passing remark, as she frequently does, Woolf articulates a truth that extends far beyond literature and applies to just about every aspect of life:

[N]othing is easier and more stultifying than to make rules which exist out of touch with facts, in a vacuum.

One of her most important points deals with the collective influence we exert as an audience on the nature and quality of what is being written:

[I]f to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and … [more]
culture  books  education  Virginia_Woolf  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Richard Feynman on the Universal Responsibility of Scientists
On harvesting the fruit of freedom of thought.

“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” E. B. White wrote of the role and responsibility of the writer.

In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman adds to history’s famous definitions of science and considers the responsibility of the scientist as just about the polar opposite: to be continuously informed and shaped by life, free of the despotism of opinion and the addiction to rectitude.

Speaking to the notion that “every child is a scientist,” Feynman champions the true responsibility of science education — a responsibility and purpose sadly belied by the current education system — and argues:

When we read about this in the newspaper, it says, ‘The scientist says that this discovery may have importance in the cure of cancer.’ The paper is only interested in the use of the idea, not the idea itself. Hardly anyone can understand the importance of an idea, it is so remarkable. Except that, possibly, some children catch on. And when a child catches on to an idea like that, we have a scientist. These ideas do filter down (in spite of all the conversation about TV replacing thinking), and lots of kids get the spirit — and when they have the spirit you have a scientist. It’s too late for them to get the spirit when they are in our universities, so we must attempt to explain these ideas to children.

He then moves on to the broader role of science as a cultural force. The idea that ignorance is central to science — as well as film, media, and design — is an enduring theme, but Feynman lives up to his reputation and articulates it more beautifully and eloquently than anyone:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to “live the questions,” Feynman traces the roots of science to the vital anti-authoritarianism of brave minds like Galileo and reminds us:

Now, we scientists … take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that’s all — not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Here lies a responsibility to society.

With his signature blend of graceful language and uncompromising conviction, Feynman echoes Bertrand Russell’s contention that “without science, democracy is impossible” and aims at the bullseye of the scientist’s responsibility:

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. There are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys, man is saved!’ and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

Pair with Feynman’s timeless commencement address on integrity and Stuart Firestein’s fantastic Ignorance: How It Drives Science, one of the best science books of 2012.

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culture  science  books  Richard_Feynman  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
New spectroscopy method could lead to better optical devices
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A multi-university research team has used a new spectroscopic method to gain a key insight into how light is emitted from layered nanomaterials and other thin films.
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Culture  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
The History of Photography, Animated
From ancient witchcraft to the camera obscura to the iPhone, or why Victorians always looked stern.

It’s estimated that roughly 380 billion photographs are taken in the world each year — more photos per day than in the entire first 100 years after the invention of photography. But what, exactly, ignited that boom of visual culture? In this lovely short animation, Bulgarian-born Boston-based photographer Eva Koleva Timothy — who gave us the wonderful Lost in Learning project — traces the evolution of photography through innovations in science, technology, and policy, from the Arab world of the 9th century to Leonardo daVinci to George Eastman and beyond.

Complement with 100 ideas that changed photography, the history of image manipulation before Photoshop, and some innovation lessons from the story of Polaroid.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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culture  photography  technology  history  innovation  TED  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and the Shared Dignity of Giving and Receiving
“When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

“It would be a terrible calamity,” Henry Miller wrote in his meditation on the beautiful osmosis between giving and receiving, “for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches.” And yet, we live in a culture that perpetuates the false perception of a certain power dynamic between giver and receiver, and — worse yet — stigmatizes the very act of asking as undignified.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the wonderful Amanda Palmer who, besides being an extraordinarily talented musician, is also a fellow champion of open culture and believer in making good work freely available, trusting that those who find value in it will support it accordingly. Disillusioned with the questionable success standards of the music industry, she recently left her record label and set out to self-release her next album in what became the most heartily funded music project in the history of Kickstarter — but not without some harsh criticism by those too attached to the crumbling comforts of the Olden Ways. In this brave talk, easily my favorite TED talk of all time, Amanda invites us to reclaim the art of asking from the insecure grip of shame and celebrate it instead as the sublime surge of mutuality that it is:

Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists — they don’t want to ask for things. It’s not easy to ask. … Asking makes you vulnerable.

[…]

I don’t see these things as risks — I see them as trust. … But the perfect tools can’t help us if we can’t face each other, and give and receive fearlessly — but, more importantly, to ask without shame. … When we really see each other, we want to help each other. I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’

Given how close to home Amanda’s eloquent words strike, I chatted with her about what seems to be the greatest challenge to this cultural shift toward destigmatizing asking:

MP: As someone who’s been called an “internet pan-handler” for asking my community for support, I’m astounded by some people’s cynicism in failing to see the dignified mutuality in these exchanges. What can we do to shift the culture around them from pan-handling to daisy-handing?

AP: Well…this is the problem with doing a 12-minute TED talk instead of writing a 220-page book. There’s a lot of simplification involved. The concept is more or less that when you trust people to help you, they often do, and artists have done this from the dawn of time. I’m sure the early-days minstrels were epically talented couchsurfers. Maybe there were cave-surfers way back in the day, who knows.

I saw a comment on the TED website that basically said, “this model is bullshit… would you feel OK if Justin Bieber decided to crowdsource teenage girls to be his maids and clean his room, etc.,” and that got me thinking. First of all, it isn’t about the theoretical, it’s about what artists/people actually do. I doubt Justin Bieber would think it was a wise idea to let a giddy little fan into his pad and clean up his stuff, it’d be a huge pain in this ass for him and his privacy, etc., since he’s a celebrity and all he’d need is that one fan tweeting a picture of the joint and used condom by his bedside and he’d have a PR nightmare on his hands.

And the Bieber example is odd, because it involves children, but let’s say the example was, I don’t know, Ozzy Osbourne. Let’s say Ozzy puts out a call for crowdsourced maids. If an adult raises his or her hand and says, “Hell yes!!! I’m happy to spend X time being Ozzy’s maid, this’ll be interesting,” isn’t that a fair exchange between two consenting adults? Don’t people do weird shit all the time for each other, for free, just for the experience? The story? The feeling?

What if we replaced Ozzy with … I don’t know … the Dalai Llama? Would we judge it differently? A lot of young monks give up their possessions, go study with a master, and do their master’s dishes … and we think of this in a kind of gentle-hearted karate-kid sort of romanticism. …

The idea is to let adults make their own rules, their own exchanges, their own decisions. We all value different things and experiences in different ways — and we can get very creative about it, and about the ways we help each other.

To partake in the architecture of this new paradigm and revel in the two-way street of this glorious mutuality, support Amanda’s music and ethos on her site, where you can download her fantastic new album — for free or for however much you’d like — and go see one of her shows if you get a chance. For more of her spirit of fierce openness, follow her Twitter.

Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I'm doing something right.
art  culture  activism  creativity  music  TED  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Clinical Intuition—A Complex Concept Characterized by Numerous Cognitive Processes
To gain a better understanding of "clinical intuition" as experienced by physicians, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 18 family physicians, analyzing 24 different patient cases in which the physicians believed they had experienced an intuition.

While the medical literature discusses clinical intuition as "first impressions" or the first thing that comes to a physician's mind, researchers found this is only a part of what most family physicians understand by the term intuition.

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Culture  from google
march 2013 by rcr1956
Clogged heart arteries can foreshadow stroke
Blockages in your heart arteries could mean you're more likely to have a stroke, even if you're considered low risk, according to research in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

"This study demonstrates that stroke risk is tightly aligned with coronary atherosclerosis, showing the closely related nature of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease," said Dirk M. Hermann, M.D., the study's lead investigator and professor of vascular neurology and dementia at the University Hospital Essen in Germany.
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Culture  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
Sitting less and moving about more could be more important than vigorous exercise to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes
New research led at the University of Leicester reveals that individuals at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes would benefit from being told to sit less and move around more often- rather than simply exercising regularly. The experts suggest that reducing sitting time by 90 minutes in total per day could lead to important health benefits.
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Culture  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
Lipid researcher, 98, reports on the dietary causes of heart disease
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A 98-year-old researcher argues that, contrary to decades of clinical assumptions and advice to patients, dietary cholesterol is good for your heart – unless that cholesterol is unnaturally oxidized (by frying foods in reused oil, eating lots of polyunsaturated fats, or smoking).
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Culture  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
What Now? Advice on Writing and Life from Ann Patchett
“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”

In 2006, writer Ann Patchett gave the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. The speech, a worthy addition to history’s most memorable graduation addresses, spurred such wide resonance that it was soon adapted into a small and lovely hardcover book titled What Now? (public library) and designed by none other than the great Chip Kidd — a fate not entirely uncommon, also shared by David Foster Wallace’s celebrated This Is Water commencement-address-turned-book.

Patchett opens:

If all fairy tales begin ‘Once upon a time,’ then all graduation speeches begin ‘When I was sitting where you are now.’ We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.

Having once sat in those very chairs herself, Patchett offers a poetic, bittersweet meditation on the elasticity of time:

Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.

Echoing Steve Jobs, who in his own fantastic commencement address famously cautioned that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Patchett urges these new graduates to be sure to return at some point — this, she argues, would let them reflect on the series of small choices which, as William James put it a century ago, “[spin] our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” Patchet writes:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?

Borrowing in part from great scientists and in part from great poets, Patchett advocates for embracing uncertainty as a positive force:

Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.

Patchett goes on to offer a treasure trove of insight on the craft of writing, from honing your daily routine to dealing with rejection. Complement What Now? with more fantastic advice for graduates — or for anyone turning a new leaf of any variety — from Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Novogratz.

Photograph courtesy Ann Patchett

Donating = Loving
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

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culture  psychology  Ann_Patchett  books  writing  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
Gene associated with high anxiety can have protective effect on the battlefield
The onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is unpredictable. Because it depends on the unforeseeable occurrence of traumatic events, it is difficult to identify preventative or causative factors. Scientists typically turn to patients who have already developed PTSD to study the disorder, but that means they can't draw comparisons to their psychological state prior to experiencing trauma.
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Culture  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
Vitamin C is beneficial against the common cold
Vitamin C seems to be particularly beneficial for people under heavy physical stress. In five randomized trials of participants with heavy short-term physical stress, vitamin C halved the incidence of the common cold.

Three of the trials studied marathon runners, one studied Swiss school children in a skiing camp and one studied Canadian soldiers during a winter exercise.

Furthermore, in a recent randomized trial carried out with adolescent competitive swimmers, vitamin C halved the duration of colds in males, although the vitamin had no effect on females.
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Culture  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
Happy Birthday, Darwin: A Graphic Biography
The evolution of the father of evolution, illustrated.

Charles Darwin — father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, occasional grump — was born on this day in 1809. From Smithsonian Books comes Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library; UK) — a fine addition to outstanding graphic nonfiction, joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs. Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.

Complement Darwin: A Graphic Biography with the legendary naturalist’s original list of the the pros and cons of marriage, then revisit the best graphic novels of 2012.

Images courtesy Smithsonian Books

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art  culture  science  books  Charles_Darwin  graphic_nonfiction  history  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
'Smarter' PSA Testing May Reduce Harms of Testing While Preserving Life-saving Benefits
Using a selective screening strategy for prostate cancer may reduce the harms associated with testing while preserving the number of lives saved.

Measuring blood levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) can help doctors determine which patients may be at risk for prostate cancer. Patients with an elevated PSA level may require a biopsy to determine if cancer is present. However, biopsies are associated with many troublesome side effects and still cannot tell a doctor with certainty which cases of prostate cancer are life-threatening and require treatment.

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Culture  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
My Brother’s Book: Maurice Sendak’s Posthumous Love Letter to the World
“Because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.”

For those of us who loved legendary children’s book author Maurice Sendak — famed creator of wild things, little-known illustrator of velveteen rabbits, infinitely warm heart, infinitely witty mind — his death in 2012 was one of the year’s greatest heartaches. Now, half a century after his iconic Where The Wild Things Are comes My Brother’s Book (public library; UK) — a bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. In fact, a foreword by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt reveals the book is based on the Bard’s “A Winter’s Tale.”

It tells the story of two brothers, Jack and Guy, torn asunder when a falling star crashes onto Earth. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years ago, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, whose prolonged illness and eventual loss in 2007 devastated Sendak — the character of Guy reads like a poetic fusion of Sendak and Glynn. And while the story might be a universal “love letter to those who have gone before,” as NPR’s Renee Montagne suggests in Morning Edition, it is in equal measure a private love letter to Glynn. (Sendak passed away the day before President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, but Sendak fans were quick to honor both historic moments with a bittersweet homage.)

Indeed, the theme of all-consuming love manifests viscerally in Sendak’s books. Playwright Tony Kushner, a longtime close friend of Sendak’s and one of his most heartfelt mourners, tells NPR:

There’s a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice’s books. And I think that when people play with kids, there’s a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring — because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.

My Brother’s Book ends on a soul-stirring note, tender and poignant in its posthumous light:

And Jack slept safe
Enfolded in his brother’s arms
And Guy whispered ‘Good night
And you will dream of me.’

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art  culture  design  books  children's_books  illustration  love  Maurice_Sendak  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
Neurologist Oliver Sacks on Memory, Plagiarism, and the Necessary Forgettings of Creativity
“Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” researcher Rosalind Cartwright reminded us in her fascinating treatise on the science of dreams. “The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true,” Jonah Lehrer wrote shortly before being engulfed a maelstrom of escalating accusations of autoplagiarism and outright fabulation. Yet while we already know that memory is not a recording device, the exact extent of its fallibility eludes — often, quite conveniently — most of us.

In his recent New York Review of Books essay, legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks tackles precisely that, exposing the remarkable mechanisms by which we fabricate our memories, involuntarily blurring the line between the experienced and the assimilated:

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.

One phenomenon Sacks argues is particularly common — if not adaptive — in the creative mind is that of autoplagiarism:

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Citing a number of case studies where false memories of fictitious events were “implanted” in people’s minds, Sacks explores unconscious plagiarism, something Henry Miller poetically probed and Mark Twain eloquently, if unscientifically, addressed in his famous letter to Helen Keller. Sacks writes:

What is clear in all these cases — whether of imagined or real abuse in childhood, of genuine or experimentally implanted memories, of misled witnesses and brainwashed prisoners, of unconscious plagiarism, and of the false memories we probably all have based on misattribution or source confusion — is that, in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls ‘historical truth’ and ‘narrative truth.’

[…]

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true (as Helen Keller was in a very good position to note) depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. . . . Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.

Sacks concludes:

We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

In a rare act of defiant reliability, my own memory brought to mind a footnoted passage in Sacks’s mind-bendingly excellent recent book, Hallucinations, where he explores memory further:

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

In a footnote, he adds:

For [researchers] in the early twentieth century, memories were imprints in the brain (as for Socrates they were analogous to impressions made in soft wax) — imprints that could be activated by the act of recollection. It was not until the crucial studies of Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s that the classical view could be disputed. Whereas Ebbinghaus and other early investigators had studied rote memory — how many digits could be remembered, for instance — Bartlett presented his subjects with pictures or stories and accounts of what they had seen or heard were somewhat different (and sometimes quite transformed) on each re-remembering. These experiments convinced Bartlett to think in terms not of a static thing called ‘memory,’ but rather a dynamic process of ‘remembering.’ He wrote:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience. . . . It is thus hardly ever really exact.

Could it be, then, that the very fallibility of memory is essential to our combinatorial creativity and to the mechanics of the slot machine of ideation? To steal like an artist might be, after all, the default setting of the brain.

Oliver Sacks portrait by John Midgley via Wired

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culture  science  creativity  neuroscience  Oliver_Sacks  psychology  from google
february 2013 by rcr1956
The Mahatma and the Poet: Tagore’s Letters to Gandhi on Power, Morality, and Science
“Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it.”

Between 1915 and 1941, Mahatma Gandhi — who was assassinated 65 years ago today — exchanged a series of letters with Indian poet, philosopher, and celebrated creative spirit Rabindranth Tagore, debating such subjects as truth, freedom, democracy, courage, education, and the future of humanity as India struggled for its independence. The correspondence, collected in The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates Between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941 (public library) is more than a mere addition to history’s notable epistolary exchanges. These letters are unique in that they were private in nature but public in manifestation — Tagore wrote in the Indian Nationalist intelligentsia forum Modern Review and Gandhi in his own political journal, Young India — and their spirit of mutual respect and measured response was antithetical to how such a debate might unfold today, if carried out in the public forum of blogs and online commentary. In the age of the “drunks in a barroom” model for political debate, these letters offer a poignant example of what it means to be both friends and intellectual adversaries, to stand by one’s convictions with equal parts dignity and respect for the other’s, to seek above all else to advance the public good rather than the private ego.

While he reposed his wholehearted faith in Gandhi as a leader, Tagore was critical of some of his tactics, chiefly his use of non-cooperation, which the poet saw as planting the seeds of intolerance. On April 19, 1919, Tagore writes:

Dear Mahatmaji,

Power in all its forms is irrational; it is like the horse that drags the carriage blindfolded. The moral element in it is only represented in the man who drives the horse. Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it. The danger inherent in all force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation.

I know your teaching is to fight against evil by the help of good. But such a fight is for heroes and not for men led by impulses of the moment. Evil on one side naturally begets evil on the other, injustice leading to violence and insult to vengefulness. Unfortunately such a force has already been started, and either through panic or through wrath our authorities have shown us the claws whose sure effect is to drive some of us into the secret path of resentment and others into utter demoralization. In this crisis you, as a great leader of men, have stood among us to proclaim your faith in the ideal which you know to be that of India, the ideal which is both against the cowardliness of hidden revenge and the cowed submissiveness of the terror-stricken. You have said, as Lord Buddha, has done in his time and for all the time to come:

Akkodhena jine kodham, asadhum sadhuna jine [Conquer anger by the power of non-anger and evil by power of good.]

This power of good must prove its truth and strength by its fearlessness, by its refusal to accept any imposition which depends for its success upon its power to produce frightfulness and is not ashamed to use its machines of destruction to terrorize a population completely disarmed. We must know that moral conquest does not consist in success, that failure does not deprive it of its dignity and worth. Those who believe in spiritual life know that to stand against wrong which has overwhelming material power behind it is victory itself,- it is the victory of the active faith in the ideal in the teeth of evident defeat.

I have always felt and said accordingly, that the great gift of freedom can never come to a people through charity. We must win it before we can own it.

[…]

And you have come to your motherland in the time of her need to remind her of her mission, to lead her into the true path of conquest, to purge her present day politics of its feebleness which imagines that it has gained its purpose when it struts in the borrowed feathers of diplomatic dishonesty.

This is why I pray most fervently that nothing tends to weaken our spiritual freedom may intrude into your marching line, that martyrdom for the cause of truth may never degenerate into fanaticism for mere verbal forms, descending into the self-deception that hides itself behind sacred names.

With these few words for an introduction allow me to offer the following as a poet’s contribution to your noble work:

I

Let me hold my head high in this faith that thou art our shelter, that all fear is mean distrust of these.

Fear of man? But what man is there in this world, what king, King of kings, who is thy rival, who has hold of me for all time and in all time and in all truth?

What power is there in this world to rob me of my freedom? For do not thy arms reach the captive through the dungeon-walls, bringing unfettered release to the soul?

And must I cling to this body in fear if death, as a miser to his barren treasure/ has not this spirit of mine the eternal call to thy feast of everlasting life?

Let me know that all pain and death are shadows of the moment; that dark force which sweeps between me and thy truth is but the mist before the sunrise; that thou alone art mine for ever and greater than all pride of strength that dares to mock my manhood with its menace.

II

Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer; the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone.

Give me the supreme faith of love, this is my prayer; the faith of life in death, of the victory in defeat, of the power hidden in the frailties of beauty, of the dignity of pain that accepts hurt, but disdains to return it.

Very sincerely yours,

Rabindranth Tagore

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag on courage and resistance.

Though Tagore is often misconceived as a kind of Oriental mystic — a perception no doubt compounded by his big white beard and draping robes — he was in fact a proponent of rational thought and a champion of the liberating capacity of modern science, as evidenced by his famous conversation with Einstein. In 1934, after Gandhi made a public statement calling the Bihar earthquake divine retribution for India’s sins, an appalled Tagore wrote respectfully but assertively:

[I feel] compelled to utter a truism in asserting that physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts. … We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasize the elements of unreason in those very minds — unreason, which is a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect.

He argued for technology as a humanizing rather than dehumanizing force, something MoMA’s Paola Antonelli eloquently echoed more than a century later, writing in 1925:

If the cultivation of science by Europe has any moral significance, it is in its rescue of man from outrage by nature, not its use of man as a machine but its use of the machine to harness the forces of nature in man’s service.

Complement with Tagore and Einstein in dialogue about truth and beauty.

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culture  politics  science  books  Gandhi  history  letters  philosophy  Tagore  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Richard Burton Reads John Donne’s Poem “The Flea”
“Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.”

Though beloved poet John Donne’s exact date of birth remains unknown, it is believed to be between January 24th and June 19th, 1572. As inconveniencing as this flexibility might be for history’s exacting annals, it gives us the luxurious five-month elasticity of choosing when to celebrate his birth. Like, for instance, today: In this beautiful recording, found in the altogether fantastic collection Richard Burton Reads the Poetry of John Donne, the celebrated Welsh actor and Academy Award winner reads Donne’s poem “The Flea,” originally recorded in the 1960s but only released posthumously in 2009, a quarter century after Burton’s death. Inhale and enjoy:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;   
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?   
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?   
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou   
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Find more of Donne’s timelessly enchanting poetry in the Penguin Classic John Donne: The Complete English Poems (public library), and treat yourself to some Donne-inspired literary jukebox.

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culture  history  John_Donne  poetry  Richard_Burton  SoundCloud  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Cardiac disease linked to higher risk of mental impairment, Mayo Clinic finds
ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Cardiac disease is associated with increased risk of mild cognitive impairment such as problems with language, thinking and judgment -- particularly among women with heart disease, a Mayo Clinic study shows. Known as nonamnestic because it doesn't include memory loss, this type of mild cognitive impairment may be a precursor to vascular and other non-Alzheimer's dementias, according to the findings published online Monday in JAMA Neurology.
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Culture  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
The Science of Love: How Positivity Resonance Shapes the Way We Connect
The neurobiology of how the warmest emotion blurs the boundaries by you and not-you.

We kick-started the year with some of history’s most beautiful definitions of love. But timeless as their words might be, the poets and the philosophers have a way of escaping into the comfortable detachment of the abstract and the metaphysical, leaving open the question of what love really is on an unglamorously physical, bodily, neurobiological level — and how that might shape our experience of those lofty abstractions. That’s precisely what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who has been studying positive emotions for decades, explores in the unfortunately titled but otherwise excellent Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (UK; public library). Using both data from her own lab and ample citations of other studies, Fredrickson dissects the mechanisms of love to reveal both its mythologies and its practical mechanics.

She begins with a definition that parallels Dorion Sagan’s scientific meditation on sex:

First and foremost, love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. As for all positive emotions, the inner feeling love brings you is inherently and exquisitely pleasant — it feels extraordinarily good, the way a long, cool drink of water feels when you’re parched on a hot day. Yet far beyond feeling good, a micro-moment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. The boundaries between you and not-you — what lies beyond your skin — relax and become more permeable. While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.

[…]

Perhaps counterintuitively, love is far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection. It’s that poignant stretching of your heart that you feel when you gaze into a newborn’s eyes for the first time or share a farewell hug with a dear friend. It’s even the fondness and sense of shared purpose you might unexpectedly feel with a group of strangers who’ve come together to marvel at a hatching of sea turtles or cheer at a football game. The new take on love that I want to share with you is this: Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.

Fredrickson zooms in on three key neurobiological players in the game of love — your brain, your levels of the hormone oxytocin, and your vagus nerve, which connects your brain to the rest of your body — and examines their interplay as the core mechanism of love, summing up:

Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.

She shorthands this trio “positivity resonance” — a concept similar to limbic revision — and likens the process to a mirror in which you and your partner’s emotions come into sync, reflecting and reinforcing one another:

This is no ordinary moment. Within this mirrored reflection and extension of your own state, you see far more. A powerful back-and-forth union of energy springs up between the two of you, like an electric charge.

What makes “positivity resonance” so compelling a concept and so arguably richer than traditional formulations of “love” is precisely this back-and-forthness and the inclusiveness implicit to it. Fredrickson cautions against our solipsistic view of love, common in the individualistic cultures of the West:

Odds are, if you were raised in a Western culture, you think of emotions as largely private events. you locate them within a person’s boundaries, confined within their mind and skin. When conversing about emotions, your use of singular possessive adjectives betrays this point of view. You refer to ‘my anxiety,’ ‘his anger,’ or ‘her interest.’ Following this logic, love would seem to belong to the person who feels it. Defining love as positivity resonance challenges this view. Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.

Citing various research, Fredrickson puts science behind what Anaïs Nin poetically and intuitively cautioned against more than half a century ago:

People who suffer from anxiety, depression, or even loneliness or low self-esteem perceive threats far more often than circumstances warrant. Sadly, this overalert state thwarts both positivity and positivity resonance. Feeling unsafe, then, is the first obstacle to love.

But perhaps the insight hardest to digest in the age of artificial semi-connectedness — something Nin also cautioned against a prescient few decades before the internet — has to do with the necessary physicality of love:

Love’s second precondition is connection, true sensory and temporal connection with another living being. You no doubt try to ‘stay connected’ when physical distance keeps you and your loved ones apart. You use the phone, e-mail, and increasingly texts or Facebook, and it’s important to do so. Yet your body, sculpted by the forces of natural selection over millennia, was not designed for the abstractions of long-distance love, the XOXs and LOLs. Your body hungers for more.

[…]

True connection is one of love’s bedrock prerequisites, a prime reason that love is not unconditional, but instead requires a particular stance. Neither abstract nor mediated, true connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires sensory and temporal copresence of bodies .The main mode of sensory connection, scientists contend, is eye contact. Other forms of real-time sensory contact — through touch, voice, or mirrored body postures and gestures — no doubt connect people as well and at times can substitute for eye contact. Nevertheless, eye contact may well be the most potent trigger for connection and oneness.

[…]

Physical presence is key to love, to positivity resonance.

While Fredrickson argues for positivity resonance as a phenomenon that can blossom between any set of people, not just lovers, she takes care to emphasize the essential factor that separates intimate love from other love: time.

Love is a many-splendored thing. This classic saying is apt, not only because love can emerge from the shoots of any other positive emotion you experience, be it amusement, serenity, or gratitude, but also because of your many viable collaborators in love, ranging from our sister to your soul mate, your newborn to your neighbor, even someone you’ve never met before.

[…]

At the level of positivity resonance, micro-moments of love are virtually identical regardless of whether they bloom between you and a stranger or you and a soul mate; between you and an infant or you and your lifelong best friend. The clearest difference between the love you feel with intimates and the love you feel with anyone with whom you share a connection is its sheer frequency. Spending more total moments together increases your chances to feast on micro-moments of positivity resonance. These micro-moments change you.

[…]

Whereas the biological synchrony that emerges between connected brains and bodies may be comparable no matter who the other person may be, the triggers for your micro-moments of love can be wholly different with intimates. The hallmark feature of intimacy is mutual responsiveness, that reassuring sense that you and your soul mate — or you and your best friend — really ‘get’ each other. This means that you come to your interactions with a well-developed understanding of each other’s inner workings, and you use that privileged knowledge thoughtfully, for each other’s benefit. Intimacy is that safe and comforting feeling you get when you can bask in the knowledge that this other person truly understands and appreciates you. You can relax in this person’s presence and let your guard down. Your mutual sense of trust, perhaps reinforced by your commitments of loyalty to each other, allows each of you to be more open with each other than either of you would be elsewhere.

(As the silent half of Penn & Teller once poignantly remarked, “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”)

Complement Love 2.0, a fine addition to these essential books on the psychology of love, with the indispensable A General Theory of Love.

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culture  psychology  books  love  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Science, Storytelling, and “Gut Churn”: Jad Abumrad on the Secrets of Creative Success
On diving head-first into the unknown.

Since 2004, Radiolab has been sparking a singular kind of magic at the intersection of science and storytelling, redefining not only public radio but also the “role of scientific culture in modern society,” to borrow Richard Feynman’s words.

In this fantastic talk from The 99% Conference, Radiolab mastermind and MacArthur genius Jad Abumrad takes us behind the scenes to explore the tribulations and triumphs of building a novel paradigm from the ground up.

At the heart of it, he argues, is the notion of the “gut churn” — that scrambly, uncomfortable, anxious fight-or-flight feeling that comes with doing something uncontrollably new that could go uncontrollably wrong, at once an intensified version of Rilke’s comfortably philosophical notion of living the questions and a living testament to the idea that uncertainty is what fuels science.

Countering that — and sustaining the creative spirit through it — is the same kind of intuition about the right direction that guides great scientists. Staying the course requires constant creative rejuvenation — Jad recommends beloved graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s sabbatical strategy.

Listen and enjoy:

To whatever degree Radiolab represents change, we didn’t plan it. I don’t think change can be planned — I think it’s only something that can be recognized after the fact.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for The 99%

Complement with Jad on sound, science, and mystery and his philosophy of “pointing arrows.” Radiolab, like Brain Pickings, is noncommercial and made possible by audience contributions — I proudly make mine monthly. Join me in supporting them with a donation.

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culture  psychology  creativity  Jad_Abumrad  storytelling  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Don't ignore the snore: Snoring may be early sign of future health risks
DETROIT – Here's a wake-up call for snorers: Snoring may put you at a greater risk than those who are overweight, smoke or have high cholesterol to have thickening or abnormalities in the carotid artery, according to researchers at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

The increased thickening in the lining of the two large blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygenated blood is a precursor to atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries responsible for many vascular diseases.
read more
Culture  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
On Art and Government: The Poem Robert Frost Didn’t Read at JFK’s Inauguration
“Summoning artists to participate / In the august occasions of the state / Seems something artists ought to celebrate.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested poet Robert Frost, who had been appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1958, participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. JFK asked Frost to either compose a bespoke poem for the occasion or read “The Gift Outright,” written in the 1930s and published in 1942. Frost responded to JFK’s invitation with bold enthusiasm in a telegram sent the following day:

If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry — now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen. … I am glad the invitation pleases your family. It will please my family to the fourth generation and my family of friends and, were they living, it would have pleased inordinately the kind of Grover Cleveland Democrats I had for parents.

As Natalie Bober writes in A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost (public library), Frost had planned to read “The Gift Outright” — which he once described as “a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse” — but once he arrived in Washington two days prior to the inauguration, the 86-year-old poet got so absorbed in the excitement that he decided to compose an additional poem and recite it before the one already planned. Titled “Dedication,” it was at once a celebration of JFK’s slim victory over Nixon (“The greatest vote a people ever cast, / So close yet sure to be abided by.”) and a wider ode to the dream of including the arts in government at the dawn of the “next Augustan age,” framing investment in the arts as an essential part of patriotism and democracy.

'Dedication' by Robert Frost, handwritten and signed by the author, January 20, 1961.

Image courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

DEDICATION

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.

Robert Frost recites 'The Gift Outright' for John F. Kennedy in 1961

Image courtesy The New York Times

Once Frost completed the 42-line poem, however, he realized he had no time to memorize it — he’d have to read it instead. But on the white winter day of the ceremony, he ran into some meteorologically induced technical difficulties: The sun’s glare in the surface of the snow was so bright that the poet couldn’t read the text past the third line. Armed solely with his memory, he was able to recite the familiar “The Gift Outright” only. Per Kennedy’s request, however, Frost changed the last line from “Such as she would become” to the more assertively hopeful “Such as she will become.”

Though a recording from the actual inauguration doesn’t appear to survive, this reading by Frost himself approximates the occasion as fully as one could hope:

“Dedication,” which was eventually retitled to “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration,” and “The Gift Outright” both appear in Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (public library).

↬ Open Culture & Poetry Foundation

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culture  politics  history  poetry  Robert_Frost  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Benjamin Franklin on True Happiness
“Virtue is … the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body.”

The secret of happiness has been sought in cultivating optimism, in celebrating everyday moments, in finding one’s creative purpose, and in embracing uncertainty, but it remains forever elusive and forever alluring. Writing in a 1785 essay titled “On True Happiness,” originally printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette and eventually published in On True Happiness and Other Essays (UK; public library), Founding Father Benjamin Franklin — born 307 years ago today — considers the essence of the universal human pursuit that eventually found its way onto the United States Constitution, which Franklin co-signed.

The desire of happiness in general is so natural to us that all the world are in pursuit of it; all have this one end in view, though they take such different methods to attain it, and are so much divided in their notions of it.

Evil, as evil, can never be chosen; and though evil is often the effect of our own choice, yet we never desire it but under the appearance of an imaginary good.

Many things we indulge ourselves in may be considered by us as evils, and yet be desirable; but then they are only considered as evils in their effects and consequences, not as evils at present and attended with immediate misery.

Reason represents things to us not only as they are at present, but as they are in their whole nature and tendency; passion only regards them in their former light. When this governs us we are regardless of the future, and are only affected with the present. It is impossible ever to enjoy ourselves rightly if our conduct be not such as to preserve the harmony and order of our faculties and the original frame and constitution of our minds; all true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order.

Whilst there is a conflict betwixt the two principles of passion and reason, we must be miserable in proportion to the struggle, and when the victory is gained and reason so far subdued as seldom to trouble us with its remonstrances, the happiness we have then is not the happiness of our rational nature, but the happiness only of the inferior and sensual part of us, and consequently a very low and imperfect happiness to what the other would have afforded us.

If we reflect upon any one passion and disposition of mind abstract from virtue, we shall soon see the disconnexion between that and true, solid happiness. It is of the very essence, for instance, of envy to be uneasy and disquieted. Pride meets with provocations and disturbances upon almost every occasion. Covetousness is ever attended with solicitude and anxiety. Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us; its appetite grows the keener by indulgence, and all we can gratify it with at present serves but the more to inflame its insatiable desires.

The passions, by being too much conversant with earthly objects, can never fix in us a proper composure and acquiescence of mind. Nothing but an indifference to the things of this world, an entire submission to the will of Providence here, and a well-grounded expectation of happiness hereafter, can give us a true satisfactory enjoyment of ourselves. Virtue is the best guard against the many unavoidable evils incident to us; nothing better alleviates the weight of the afflictions or gives a truer relish of the blessings of human life.

What is without us has not the least connexion with happiness only so far as the preservation of our lives and health depends upon it. Health of body, though so far necessary that we cannot be perfectly happy without it, is not sufficient to make us happy of itself. Happiness springs immediately from the mind; health is but to be considered as a condition or circumstance, without which this happiness cannot be tasted pure and unabated.

Virtue is the best preservative of health, as it prescribes temperance and such a regulation of our passions as is most conducive to the well-being of the animal economy, so that it is at the same time the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body.

If our desires are to the things of this world, they are never to be satisfied. If our great view is upon those of the next, the expectation of them is an infinitely higher satisfaction than the enjoyment of those of the present.

There is no happiness then but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct. Unless our actions will bear the test of our sober judgments and reflections upon them, they are not the actions and consequently not the happiness of a rational being.

Complement with Francis Bacon on virtue.

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culture  psychology  Benjamin_Franklin  happiness  history  philosophy  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
How to Read Faster: Bill Cosby’s Three Proven Strategies
“Nobody gets something for nothing in the reading game.”

“All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading,” H. P. Lovecraft famously advised aspiring writers. Indeed, reading is an essential skill on par with writing, and though non-reading may be an intellectual choice on par with reading, reading itself — just like writing — is a craft that requires optimal technique for optimal outcome. So how, exactly, do we hone that vital technique? While speed-reading tutorials, courses, software, and books abound today, some of the most potent tips you’ll ever receive come from an unexpected source:

Bill Cosby may be best-known as the beloved personality behind his eponymous TV show, but he earned his doctorate in education and has been involved in several projects teaching the essential techniques of effective reading, including a PBS series on reading skills. In an essay unambiguously titled “How to Read Faster,” published in the same wonderful 1985 anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (UK; public library) that gave us Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 timeless rules of writing, Cosby offers his three proven strategies for reading faster. Apart from their evergreen application to the printed word, it’s particularly interesting to consider how these rules might translate to the digital screen, where structural factors like scrolling, pagination, hyperlinks, and adjustable font sizes make the text and the reading experience at once more fluid and more rigid.

1. Preview — If It’s Long and Hard

Previewing is especially useful for getting a general idea of heavy reading like long magazine or newspaper articles, business reports, and nonfiction books.

It can give you as much as half the comprehension in as little as one tenth the time. For example, you should be able to preview eight or ten 100-page reports in an hour. After previewing, you’ll be able to decide which reports (or which parts of which reports) are worth a closer look.

Here’s how to preview: Read the entire first two paragraphs of whatever you’ve chosen. Next read only the first sentence of each successive paragraph. Then read the entire last two paragraphs.

Previewing doesn’t give you all the details. But it does keep you from spending time on things you don’t really want — or need — to read.

Notice that previewing gives you a quick, overall view of long, unfamiliar material. For short, light reading, there’s a better technique.

2. Skim — If It’s Short and Simple

Skimming is a good way to get a general idea of light reading such as popular magazines or the sports and entertainment sections of the paper.

You should be able to skim a weekly popular magazine or the second section of your daily paper in less than half the time it takes you to read it now.

Skimming is also a great way to review material you’ve read before.

Here’s how to skim: Think of your eyes as magnets. Force them to move fast. Sweep them across each and every line of type. Pick up only a few key words in each line.

Everybody skims differently.

You and I may not pick up exactly the same words when we skim the same piece, but we’ll both get a pretty similar idea of what it’s all about.

To show you how it works, I circled the words I picked out when I skimmed the following story. Try it. It shouldn’t take you more than ten seconds.

Skimming can give you a very good idea of this story in about half the words, and in less than half the time it’d take to read every word.

So far, you’ve seen that previewing and skimming can give you a general idea about content — fast. But neither technique can promise more than 50 percent comprehension, because you aren’t reading all the words. (Nobody gets something for nothing in the reading game.)

To read faster and understand most, if not all, of what you read, you need to know a third technique.

3. Cluster — to Increase Speed AND Comprehension

Most of us learn to read by looking at each word in a sentence — one at a time.

Like this:

My — brother — Russell — thinks — monsters…

You probably still read this way sometimes, especially when the words are difficult. Or when the words have an extraspecial meaning, as in a poem, a Shakespeare play or a contract. And that’s okay.

But word-by-word reading is a rotten way to read faster. It actually cuts down on your speed.

Clustering trains you to look at groups of words instead of one at a time, and it increases your speed enormously. For most of us, clustering is a totally different way of seeing what we read.

Here’s how to cluster: Train your eyes to see all the words in clusters of up to three or four words at a glance.

Here’s how I’d cluster the story we just skimmed:

Learning to read clusters is not something your eyes do naturally. It takes constant practice.

Here’s how to go about it: Pick something light to read. Read it as fast as you can. Concentrate on seeing three to four words at once rather than one word at a time. Then reread the piece at your normal speed to see what you missed the first time.

Try a second piece. First cluster, then reread to see what you missed in this one.

When you can read in clusters without missing much the first time, your speed has increased. Practice fifteen minutes every day and you might pick up the technique in a week or so. (But don’t be disappointed if it takes longer. Clustering everything takes time and practice.

How to Use the Power of the Printed Word is a treasure trove of illuminating essays — highly recommended.

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culture  psychology  Bill_Cosby  books  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
The Edge: Hunter S. Thompson on the Burden of the Living, Animated
“The only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

Last year, Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson became one of the year’s best graphic novels and works of graphic nonfiction. Now, visual artist Piotr Kabat has employed a similar black-and-white graphic style in this wonderful short animated homage to Thompson, based on an excerpt from the 2010 film Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The title and focus come from one of Thompson’s most famous quotes, from the 1966 nonfiction novel Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs:

The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others — the living — are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.

For similar Thompson goodness in print form, treat yourself to Gonzo.

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art  culture  animation  Hunter_S._Thompson  literature  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Francis Bacon on Friendship
“A principal fruit of friendship, is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.”

In the essay “Of Friendship,” found in his Complete Essays (public library; public domain) — the same tome that gave us his timeless insights on studies and beauty — philosopher and scientific method pioneer Francis Bacon considers one of the greatest gifts of human existence:

A principal fruit of friendship, is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce. We know diseases of stoppings, and suffocations, are the most dangerous in the body; and it is not much otherwise in the mind; you may take sarza to open the liver, steel to open the spleen, flowers of sulphur for the lungs, castoreum for the brain; but no receipt openeth the heart, but a true friend; to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.

He then explores the second fruit of friendship:

The second fruit of friendship, is healthful and sovereign for the understanding, as the first is for the affections. For friendship maketh indeed a fair day in the affections, from storm and tempests; but it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts. Neither is this to be understood only of faithful counsel, which a man receiveth from his friend; but before you come to that, certain it is, that whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up, in the communicating and discoursing with another; he tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words: finally, he waxeth wiser than himself; and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.

To this he adds a chief benefit of a friend — the capacity to neutralize our astounding gift for rationalization through wise counsel:

Add now, to make this second fruit of friendship complete, that other point, which lieth more open, and falleth within vulgar observation; which is faithful counsel from a friend. Heraclitus saith well in one of his enigmas, Dry light is ever the best. And certain it is, that the light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment; which is ever infused, and drenched, in his affections and customs. So as there is as much difference between the counsel, that a friend giveth, and that a man giveth himself, as there is between the counsel of a friend, and of a flatterer. For there is no such flatterer as is a man’s self; and there is no such remedy against flattery of a man’s self, as the liberty of a friend. Counsel is of two sorts: the one concerning manners, the other concerning business. For the first, the best preservative to keep the mind in health, is the faithful admonition of a friend. The calling of a man’s self to a strict account, is a medicine, sometime too piercing and corrosive. Reading good books of morality, is a little flat and dead. Observing our faults in others, is sometimes improper for our case. But the best receipt (best, I say, to work, and best to take) is the admonition of a friend. It is a strange thing to behold, what gross errors and extreme absurdities many (especially of the greater sort) do commit, for want of a friend to tell them of them; to the great damage both of their fame and fortune: for, as St. James saith, they are as men that look sometimes into a glass, and presently forget their own shape and favor. As for business, a man may think, if he win, that two eyes see no more than one; or that a gamester seeth always more than a looker-on; or that a man in anger, is as wise as he that hath said over the four and twenty letters; or that a musket may be shot off as well upon the arm, as upon a rest; and such other fond and high imaginations, to think himself all in all. But when all is done, the help of good counsel, is that which setteth business straight. And if any man think that he will take counsel, but it shall be by pieces; asking counsel in one business, of one man, and in another business, of another man; it is well (that is to say, better, perhaps, than if he asked none at all); but he runneth two dangers: one, that he shall not be faithfully counselled; for it is a rare thing, except it be from a perfect and entire friend, to have counsel given, but such as shall be bowed and crooked to some ends, which he hath, that giveth it. The other, that he shall have counsel given, hurtful and unsafe (though with good meaning), and mixed partly of mischief and partly of remedy; even as if you would call a physician, that is thought good for the cure of the disease you complain of, but is unacquainted with your body; and therefore may put you in way for a present cure, but overthroweth your health in some other kind; and so cure the disease, and kill the patient. But a friend that is wholly acquainted with a man’s estate, will beware, by furthering any present business, how he dasheth upon other inconvenience. And therefore rest not upon scattered counsels; they will rather distract and mislead, than settle and direct.

Complete Essays is a timeless treasure in its entirety, covering such human essentials as love, anger, justice, revenge, ambition, and more.

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culture  psychology  books  Francis_Bacon  philosophy  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
How to Write with Style: Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word
“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”

Kurt Vonnegut has given us some of the most timeless advice on the art and craft of writing — from his 8 rules for a great story to his insights on the shapes of stories to his formidable daily routine. But hardly anything examines the subject with a more potent blend of practical advice and heart than Vonnegut’s 1985 essay “How to Write with Style,” published in the wonderful anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (UK; public library).

Vonnegut begins with an admonition against the impersonal sterility of journalistic reporting — something particularly important amidst contemporary debates about how personal the writerly persona should be — and a meditation on the single most important element of style:

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful–? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

Vonnegut goes on to outline eight rules for great writing:

Find a Subject You Care About
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your hose or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do Not Ramble, Though
I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep It Simple
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

Have the Guts to Cut
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like Yourself
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

[…]

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say What You Mean to Say
I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the Readers
Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, sining like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For Really Detailed Advice
For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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culture  history  Kurt_Vonnegut  lists  writing  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son, 1927
“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

The quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

In the spring of 1926, Sherwood Anderson sent his seventeen-year-old son John a beautiful addition to history’s most moving and timeless letters of fatherly advice. Found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (UK; public library), the missive offers insight on everything from knowing whose advice not to take to the false allure of money to the joy of making things with your hands:

The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,

Dad.

The following year, after Anderson and his wife took eighteen-year-old John and his sister Marion to Europe, the boy remained in Paris to study painting. Drawing on his own artistic experience and the parallels between writing and painting, Sherwood sent John another poignant letter of advice in April of 1927, adding to history’s finest definitions of art and stressing the importance of discipline in cultivating “talent”:

In relation to painting.

Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern — the latest thing.

Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.

Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn’t matter so much.

It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.

[…]

The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.

[…]

You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.

I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you. It isn’t your success I want.

There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.

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art  culture  psychology  books  happiness  letters  Sherwood_Anderson  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
The Science of Productivity, Animated
“Studies have found that the most elite violinists in the world generally follow a 90-minute work regime, with a 15- to 20-minute break afterwards.”

After their illustrated primer on the science of procrastination, the fine folks of AsapSCIENCE are back with a look at the science of productivity — including studies confirming that willpower is an exhaustible source and habit is the key to everything, and specific, actionable strategies for boosting your own efficiency, like crafting a good daily routine and keeping a notebook.

Shockingly, when we look at some of the most elite musicians in the world, we find that they aren’t necessarily practicing more but, instead, more deliberately. This is because they spend more time focused on the hardest task and focus their energy in packets — instead of diluting their energy over the entire day, they have periods of intense work, followed by breaks. Not relying on willpower, they rely on habit and discipline scheduling. Studies have found that the most elite violinists in the world generally follow a 90-minute work regime, with a 15- to 20-minute break afterwards.

Previous episodes have covered such scientific curiosities as what alcohol does to your brain, the science of lucid dreaming, how music enchants the brain, and the neurobiology of orgasms.

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culture  psychology  science  animation  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing
“Nothing any good isn’t hard.”

What is the secret of great writing? For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. For Henry Miller, about discovery. Susan Sontag saw it as self-exploration. Many literary greats anchored it to their daily routines. And yet, the answer remains elusive and ever-changing.

In the fall of 1938, Radcliffe College sophomore Frances Turnbull sent her latest short story to family friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. His response, found in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (UK; public library) — the same volume that gave us Fitzgerald’s heartwarming fatherly advice and his brilliantly acerbic response to hate mail — echoes Anaïs Nin’s insistence upon the importance of emotional investment in writing and offers some uncompromisingly honest advice on essence of great writing:

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

Two years prior, in another letter to his fifteen-year-old daughter Scottie upon her enrollment in high school, Fitzgerald offered more wisdom on the promise and perils of writing:

Grove Park Inn
Asheville, N.C.
October 20, 1936

Dearest Scottina:

[…]

Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops. At the same time, I am not going to encourage you about it, because, after all, if you want to get into the big time, you have to have your own fences to jump and learn from experience. Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

Let me preach again for one moment: I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought. It is an awfully lonesome business, and as you know, I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it at all I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn.

[…]

Nothing any good isn’t hard, and you know you have never been brought up soft, or are you quitting on me suddenly? Darling, you know I love you, and I expect you to live up absolutely to what I laid out for you in the beginning.

Scott

For more wisdom on the writing life, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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culture  books  F._Scott_Fitzgerald  letters  writing  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: Lessons in Mindfulness and Creativity from the Great Detective
“A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts,” wrote James Webb Young in his famous 1939 5-step technique for creative problem-solving, “becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.” But just how does one acquire those vital cognitive customs? That’s precisely what science writer Maria Konnikova explores in Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (UK; public library) — an effort to reverse-engineer Holmes’s methodology into actionable insights that help develop “habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.”

Bridging ample anecdotes from the adventures of Conan Doyle’s beloved detective with psychology studies both classic and cutting-edge, Konnikova builds a compelling case at the intersection of science and secular spiritualism, stressing the power of rigorous observation alongside a Buddhist-like, Cageian emphasis on mindfulness. She writes:

The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that, ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.

[…]

In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking — something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.

But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal. Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.

But mindfulness, and the related mental powers it bestows upon its master, is a skill acquired with grit and practice, rather than an in-born talent or an easy feat attained with a few half-hearted tries:

It is most difficult to apply Holmes’s logic in those moments that matter the most. And so, all we can do is practice, until our habits are such that even the most severe stressors will bring out the very thought patterns that we’ve worked so hard to master.

Echoing Carl Sagan, Konnikova examines the role of intuition — a grab-bag concept embraced by some of history’s greatest scientific minds, cultural icons, and philosophers — as both a helpful directional signpost of intellectual inquiry and a dangerous blind spot:

Our intuition is shaped by context, and that context is deeply informed by the world we live in. It can thus serve as a blinder — or blind spot — of sorts. … With mindfulness, however, we can strive to find a balance between fact-checking our intuitions and remaining open-minded. We can then make our best judgments, with the information we have and no more, but with, as well, the understanding that time may change the shape and color of that information.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Holmes famously remarked. Indeed, much like the inventor’s mind, the problem-solver’s mind is the product of that very choice: The details and observations we select to include in our “brain attic” shape and filter our perception of reality. Konnikova writes:

Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.

But while our minds might be wired to wander, argues Konnikova, multitasking is a myth that only detracts from our productivity and intellectual efficiency:

As neurologist Marcus Raichle learned after decades of looking at the brain, our minds are wired to wander. Wandering is their default. Whenever our thoughts are suspended between specific, discrete, goal-directed activities, the brain reverts to a so-called baseline, ‘resting’ state — but don’t let the word fool you, because the brain isn’t at rest at all. Instead, it experiences tonic activity in what’s now known as the DMN, the default mode network: the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex. This baseline activation suggests that the brain is constantly gathering information from both the external world and our internal states, and what’s more, that it is monitoring that information for signs of something that is worth its attention. And while such a state of readiness could be useful from an evolutionary standpoint, allowing us to detect potential predators, to think abstractly and make future plans, it also signifies something else: our minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.

The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. While our minds might be made to wander, they are not made to switch activities at anything approaching the speed of modern demands. We were supposed to remain ever ready to engage, but not to engage with multiple things at once, or even in rapid succession.

[…]

Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another. Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in that same room. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity. Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time. One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other — or others — more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out. Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.

Indeed, that allocation of attention to one thing at the expense of another produces a phenomenon known as “attentional blindness,” wherein our intense focus on a specific element makes us practically blind to all else. But there is hope in training. Konnikova offers:

The Holmes solution? Habit, habit, habit. That, and motivation. Become an expert of sorts at those types of decisions or observation that you want to excel at making. … If you learn first how to be selective accurately, in order to accomplish precisely what it is you want to accomplish, you will be able to limit the damage that System Watson can do by preemptively teaching it to not muck it up. The important thing is the proper, selective training — the presence of mind — coupled with the desire the motivation to master your thought process.

No one says it’s easy. When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free attention; it all has to come from somewhere. And every time we place an additional demand on our attentional resources — be it by listening to music while walking, checking our email while working, or following five media streams at once — we limit the awareness that surrounds any one aspect and our ability to deal with it in an engaged, mindful, and productive manner.

Konnikova argues that, not unlike … [more]
culture  psychology  science  books  creativity  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Terry Gross’s Moving Maurice Sendak Interview, Illustrated by Christoph Niemann
“Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

Beloved children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak — though he insisted he didn’t draw specifically for children — was among the most heartbreaking losses of 2012. His September 2011 NPR Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross is one of the most soul-stirring conversations you’ll ever hear on the airwaves. Indeed, after the inimitable Christoph Niemann first tuned in, he was so moved he decided to illustrate the last five minutes of the interview. The result will stop your breath:

It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music. You know, I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. I really don’t. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it.

[…]

I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.

Sendak’s final book, Bumble-Ardy (public library), was published the week of Terry Gross’s interview.

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In 2012, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner:

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I'm doing something right.
art  culture  Christoph_Niemann  interviews  Maurice_Sendak  Terry_Gross  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
How To Be a Woman
“Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change.”

We seem to have come a long way since the days of anti-Suffragette postcards and lists of don’ts for female cyclists. And yet, in How To Be a Woman (UK; public library), British media personality Caitlin Moran argues that “we still also need a bit of analysis-y, argument-y, ‘this needs to change-y’ stuff. You know. Feminism.” Her sort-of-memoir — witty, honest, feisty without trying too hard, opinionated without being preachy — begins at the beginning:

1) Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And, more pertinently:

2) I’m not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous, and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic who has appalling spelling. If something’s thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues! And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

She turns to social science to draw a compelling analogy between the current occupation of feminism and broken windows theory:

[A]ll those littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women’s peace of mind. It is the ‘Broken Windows’ philosophy, transferred to female inequality. In the Broken Windows theory, if a single broken window on an empty building is ignored and not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building and light fires, or become squatters.

Similarly, if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them. Women will get squatters. Clearly, this is not a welcome state of affairs.

But rather than sorting out the complexities of the issue in the halls of the academy, Moran argues pop’s inherent qualities make it a perfect arena:

Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change. Because of its immediacy, reach, and power — no two-year turnover, like movies; no three-year writing process, like the novel; no ten-year campaigning process, like politics — any thought or feeling that begins to foment in the collective unconscious can be number one in the charts two months later. And as soon as a pop idea gets out there, it immediately triggers action and reaction in other artists, whose responses are equally rapid — leading to an almost quantum overnight shift in the landscape.

And though touting Lady Gaga as a feminist icon might appear anything from misguided to hackneyed at first glance, Moran makes a well-argued and layered case, looking at how Gaga’s influence might reverberate through the generations:

While it’s always too early to call a career until it’s ten years in, the sheer scope, scale, impact, and intent of Gaga’s first two years as a pop star thrill me more than any female artist to emerge since Madonna. Indeed, much as I acknowledge, as a Western woman, my eternal indebtedness to Madonna — I would never have had the courage to paraglide with my muff hanging out or shag Vanilla Ice if it weren’t for the pioneering work Madonna did in Sex — it should also be noted that Gaga ascended to the world stage wearing an outfit made of raw meat and protesting against the U.S. Army’s homophobia, when she was just 24. At 24, Madonna was still working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn.

[…]

The end point of her songs is not to excite desire in potential lovers, but the thrill of examining her own feelings, then expressing them to her listeners, instead. … For women, finding a sympathetic, nonjudgmental arena is just as important as getting the right to vote. We needed not just the right legislation, but the right atmosphere, too, before we could finally start to found our canons — then, eventually, cities and empires. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be very difficult to oppress a generation of teenage girls who’ve grown up with a liberal, literate, bisexual pop star…

In the rest of How To Be a Woman, Moran goes on to explore everything from the politics of parenting to the bargaining chips of love, using the disarming honesty of her own experience as a broader lens on some of contemporary culture’s most deep-seated, widely resonating biases and frictions.

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culture  psychology  books  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Famous Resolution Lists: Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, Woody Guthrie
“Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Love everybody. Make up your mind.”

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, but instead of regurgitating the most common ones — like changing habit loops, exercising more, and being more productive — here is a look at some of history’s more unusual resolution lists from the diaries, letters, and personal effects of cultural icons:

JONATHAN SWIFT
Writing in A Tale of a Tub in 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift — best-known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels — compiled a list of 17 aspirations for his far future, titled “When I come to be old.” Focusing on wisdom, humility, patience, and justice, the list brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s famous thirteen virtues, penned around the same time.

When I come to be old. 1699.

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

via Lists of Note

SUSAN SONTAG

In 1972, 39-year-old Susan Sontag noted in her diary:

Kindness, kindness, kindness.

I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.

Then, in early 1977, she resolved:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)

MARILYN MONROE
In the winter of 1955, a 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe resolved in her leather-bound address book to do things better. The list comes from Fragments, the fantastic tome that gave us Monroe’s moving unpublished poetry.

Must make effort to do
Must have the dicipline to do the following –

z — go to class — my own always — without fail

x — go as often as possible to observe Strassberg’s other private classes

g — never miss actor’s studio sessions

v — work whenever possible — on class assignments — and always keep working on the acting exercises

u — start attending Clurman lectures — also Lee Strassberg’s directors lectures at theater wing — enquire about both

l — keep looking around me — only much more so — observing — but not only myself but others and everything — take things (it) for what they (it’s) are worth

y — must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen — making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis. And be there always on time — no excuses for being ever late.

w — if possible — take at least one class at university — in literature –

o — follow RCA thing through.

p — try to find someone to take dancing from — body work (creative)

t — take care of my instrument — personally & bodily (exercise)

try to enjoy myself when I can — I’ll be miserable enough as it is.

WOODY GUTHRIE
In 1942, 30-year-old Woody Guthrie penned a 33-point compendium of “New Years Rulin’s.” The list, originally featured here in 2011, is equal parts brave and vulnerable, brimming with a kind of heart-warming earnestness we’ve come to be tragically cynical about.

Work more and better
Work by a schedule
Wash teeth if any
Shave
Take bath
Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
Drink very scant if any
Write a song a day
Wear clean clothes — look good
Shine shoes
Change socks
Change bed cloths often
Read lots good books
Listen to radio a lot
Learn people better
Keep rancho clean
Dont get lonesome
Stay glad
Keep hoping machine running
Dream good
Bank all extra money
Save dough
Have company but dont waste time
Send Mary and kids money
Play and sing good
Dance better
Help win war — beat fascism
Love mama
Love papa
Love Pete
Love everybody
Make up your mind
Wake up and fight

Now, wash these down with this brief history of the to-do list and the psychology of its success and revisit last year’s resolution to read more and write better.

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culture  psychology  lists  Marilyn_Monroe  Susan_Sontag  from google
january 2013 by rcr1956
Ode to a Flower: Richard Feynman’s Famous Monologue on Knowledge and Mystery, Animated
“The science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower.”

Richard Feynman — champion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations, bongo player, no ordinary genius. In this fantastic animated adaptation of an excerpt from Christopher Sykes’s celebrated 1981 BBC documentary about Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out — which gave us the great physicist’s timeless words on beauty, honors, and curiosity and his fascinating explanation of where trees actually come from — Fraser Davidson captures in stunning motion graphics Feynman’s short, sublime soliloquy on why knowledge enriches life rather than detracting from its mystery, the best thing since that animated adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

The message at the heart of Feynman’s monologue — to celebrate the beauty of the mysterious, embrace the unfamiliar, and life the questions — is beautiful mantra on which to center the new year.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Complement with Feynman on the importance of the unknown in science and culture.

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january 2013 by rcr1956
Richard Dawkins on Evidence in Science, Life and Love: A Letter to His 10-Year-Old Daughter
“All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up.”

When his daughter turned ten, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — arguably today’s most vocal atheist and celebrated skeptic — wrote her a simply worded but tremendously thoughtful letter about how we know what we know, stressing the importance of evidence over blind belief. The letter, found in the 2004 essay anthology A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (UK; public library), is a fine addition to history’s best letters of fatherly advice and an important reminder that it’s never too early for critical thinking.

Dawkins writes:

To my dearest daughter,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.

Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball — the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

He then offers an oblique addition to the finest definitions of science:

Scientists — the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe — often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.

Dawkins goes on to warn against “three bad reasons for believing anything” — “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation” — particularly as they apply to religion.

But perhaps the most moving part of his letter deals with love, exploring the difference between naming feelings with concrete labels and intuiting them from the living fabric, the “evidence,” of experience:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

He relates this to the importance of intuition in scientific discovery, something a number of famous scientists have attested to, but only as a starting point:

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

After returning to the perils of tradition, Dawkins concludes with some practical advise reminiscent of the Baloney Detection Kit:

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving,

Daddy

A Devil’s Chaplain is excellent in its entirety — highly recommended.

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culture  psychology  science  books  letters  love  religion  Richard_Dawkins  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
Chuck Close on Creativity, Work Ethic, and Problem-Solving vs. Problem-Creating
“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Questions of why creators create, how they structure their days, and where they look for inspiration hold a strange kind of mesmerism over us mere mortals, an elusive promise of somehow reverse-engineering and absorbing genius through voyeurism. In 2003, artist Joe Fig began interviewing famous painters about how, where, and why they do what they do. The result was Inside the Painter’s Studio (UK; public library) — an anthology of 24 conversations with some of today’s most revered contemporary artists. Among them was legendary photorealist Chuck Close, who despite his paralyzing 1988 spinal artery collapse remains one of the most prolific, disciplined, and sought-after artists working today.

In the interview, Close echoes Tchaikovsky and Jack White in the supremacy of work ethic over “inspiration”:

I was never one of those people who had to have a perfect situation to paint in. I can make art anywhere, anytime — it doesn’t matter. I mean, I know so many artists for whom having the perfect space is somehow essential. They spend years designing, building, outfitting the perfect space, and then when it is just about time to get to work they’ll sell that place and build another one. It seems more often than not a way to keep from having to work. But I could paint anywhere. I made big paintings in the tiniest bedrooms, garages, you name it. you know, once I have my back to the room, I could be anywhere.

When asked about the motto or creed by which he lives, Close puts it even more forcefully, negating the notion of creative block:

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art ida.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you didid today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.

[…]

I never had painter’s block in my whole life.

Indeed, like many famous creators, Close enacts this belief in his own daily routine:

On a typical country day I am painting by nine, and I usually work until noon. Three hours in the morning. I will have lunch either at my desk, or if it’s nice I will go to the pool. Of if it’s really nice I will go to the beach for an hour. Have lunch on the beach perhaps, and then I come back and I paint from one to four, another three hours, and about then the light is failing, and I am beginning to fuck up. So then my nurse usually comes at four, and I stop working, clean up, have a big drink, and that’s a typical day. I work every day out there, every single day.

Close closes by offering emerging artists some words of advice on creative autonomy:

I think while appropriation has produced some interesting work … for me, the most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner where no one else’s answers will fit. You will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions to this problem that you have set for yourself because no one else’s answers are applicable.

[…]

See, I think our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation’ … You know, ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome — which I think is a more interesting place to be.

Then again, there’s always the question of whether it’s at all possible — or desirable — to fully purge ourselves of influences, given everything we create is an amalgamation of our lived experience, our “personal micro-culture,” without which we’d be unable to come up with “new,” combinatorial ideas.

Images courtesy Princeton Architectural Press / Joe Fig

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art  culture  psychology  books  Chuck_Close  creativity  interviews  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
A Christmas Story of Hope from Eleanor Roosevelt, 1940
“The times are so serious that even children should be made to understand that there are vital differences in people’s beliefs which lead to differences in behavior.”

As a lover of children’s books, especially vintage ones, I was delighted to find out that beginning in the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt — beloved First Lady, dedicated humanitarian, writer of controversial love letters, timeless philosopher — penned a series of books aimed at young readers, discussing various social and political issues, from voting to international relations. In 1940, in the midst of a grim holiday season marred by the realities of WWII and the Nazi occupation of Europe, she penned Christmas: A Story (UK; public library) — the tale of a little Dutch girl named Martha, who struggles to find meaning, love, and peace in a world of destruction and uncertainty after her father, Jon, is killed in the war.

The original edition, now long out of print, features illustrations by German graphic designer and artist Fritz Kredel, who was later commissioned to create a woodcut of the Presidential Seal for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

The light in the window must be the dream which holds us all until we ultimately win back to the things for which Jon died and for which Marta and her mother were living.

In the introduction, Roosevelt articulates something all the more prescient in the wake of recent tragedies:

The times are so serious that even children should be made to understand that there are vital differences in people’s beliefs which lead to differences in behavior.

Though the Christ Child plays a central role in Christmas: A Story as a source of hope and solace for little Martha, the religious elements are more of an allegory for Roosevelt’s philosophical message: That we don’t need to seek permission to believe in goodness, even in the face of evil, and that, as Stanley Kubrick famously put it nearly three decades later, “however vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

Some images via We Too Were Children

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culture  politics  books  children's_books  Eleanor_Roosevelt  history  religion  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
100 Diagrams That Changed the World
A visual history of human sensemaking, from cave paintings to the world wide web.

Since the dawn of recorded history, we’ve been using visual depictions to map the Earth, order the heavens, make sense of time, dissect the human body, organize the natural world, perform music, and even concretize abstract concepts like consciousness and love. 100 Diagrams That Changed the World (UK; public library) by investigative journalist and documentarian Scott Christianson chronicles the history of our evolving understanding of the world through humanity’s most groundbreaking sketches, illustrations, and drawings, ranging from cave paintings to The Rosetta Stone to Moses Harris’s color wheel to Tim Berners-Lee’s flowchart for a “mesh” information management system, the original blueprint for the world wide web.

But most noteworthy of all is the way in which these diagrams bespeak an essential part of culture — the awareness that everything builds on what came before, that creativity is combinatorial, and that the most radical innovations harness the cross-pollination of disciplines. Christianson writes in the introduction:

It appears that no great diagram is solely authored by its creator. Most of those described here were the culmination of centuries of accumulated knowledge. Most arose from collaboration (and oftentimes in competition) with others. Each was a product and a reflection of its unique cultural, historical and political environment. Each represented specific preoccupations, interests, and stake holders.

[…]

The great diagrams depicted in the book form the basis for many fields — art, astronomy, cartography, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, history, communications, particle physics, and space travel among others. More often than not, however, their creators — mostly known, but many lost to time — were polymaths who are creating new technologies or breakthroughs by drawing from a potent combination of disciplines. By applying trigonometric methods to the heavens, or by harnessing the movement of the sun and the planets to keep time, they were forging powerful new tools; their diagrams were imbued with synergy.

Rosetta Stone (196 BC)

Discovered in 1799, this granite block containing a decree written in three languages allowed Egyptologists to interpret hieroglyphics for the first time -- a language that had been out of use since the fourth century AD.

The Ptolemaic System (Claudus Ptolemy, c. AD 140-150)

This 1568 illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system, 'Figura dos Corpos Celestes' (Four Heavenly Bodies), is by the Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velbo.

Ptolemy's World Map (Claudius Ptolemy, c. AD 150)

In this 15th-century example of the Ptolemaic world map, the Indian Ocean is enclosed and there is no sea route around the Cape. The 'inhabited' (Old) World is massively inflated.

Lunar Eclipse (Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, 1019)

An illustration showing the different phases of the moon from al-Biruni's manuscript copy of his Kitab al-Tafhim (Book of Instruction on the Principles of the Art of Astrology)

Christianson offers a definition:

diagram

From the latin diagramma (figure) from Greek, a figure worked out b lines, plan, from diagraphein, from graphein to write.

First known use of the word: 1619.

A plan, a sketch, drawing, outline, not necessarily representational, designed to demonstrate or explain something or clarify the relationship existing between the parts of the whole.
In mathematics, a graphic representation of an algebraic or geometric relationship. A chart or graph.
A drawing or plan that outlines and explains the parts, operation, etc. of something: a diagram of an engine.

Dante's Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, 1308-21)

A 19th-century interpretation of Dante's map of Hell. The level of suffering and wickedness increases on the downward journey through the inferno's nine layers. No original copies of Dante's manuscript survive.

Vitruvian Man (Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1487

This sketch, and the notes that go with it, show how da Vinci understood the proportions of the human body. The head measured from the forehead to the chin was exactly one tenth of the total height, and the outstretched arms were always as wide as the body was tall.

Human Body (Andreas Vesalius, 1543)

Vesalius's revolutionary anatomical treatise, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, shows the dissected body in unusually animated poses. These detailed diagrams are perhaps the most famous illustrations in all of medical history.

Heliocentric Universe (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543)

Copernicus's revolutionary view of the universe was crystallized in this simple yet disconcerting line drawing. His heliocentric model -- which placed the Sun and not the Earth and the center of the universe -- contradicted 14th-century beliefs.

The Four Books of Architecture

Palladio's country villas, urban palazzos, and churches combined modern features with classical Roman principles. His designs were hailed as 'the quintessence of High Renaissance calm and harmony.'

Flush Toilet (John Harington, 1596)

The text accompanying Harington's diagram identified A as the 'Cesterne,' D as the 'seate boord,' H as the 'stoole pot,' and L as the 'sluce.' If used correctly, 'your worst privie may be as sweet as your best chamber.'

Moon Drawings (Galileo Galilei, 1610)

Aided by his telescope, Galileo's drawings of the moon were a revelation. Until these illustrations were published, the moon was thought to be perfectly smooth and round. Galileo's sketches revealed it to be mountainous and pitted with craters.

Color Wheel (Moses Harris, 1766)

Moses Harris's chart was the first full-color circle. The 18 colors of his wheel were derived from what he then called the three 'primitive' colors: red, yellow and blue. At the center of the wheel, Harris showed that black is formed by the superimposition of these colors.

A New Chart of History (Joseph Priestley, 1769)

The regularized distribution of dates on Priestley's chart and its horizontal composition help to emphasize the continuous flow of time. This innovative, colorful timeline allowed students to survey the fates of 78 kingdoms in one chart.

Line Graph (William Playfair, 1786)

William Playfair was the first person to display demographic and economic data in graph form. His clearly drawn, color-coded line graphs show time on the horizontal axis and economic data or quantities on the vertical axis.

Emoticons (Puck Magazine, 1881)

Emoticons made a discreet entrance, arriving in print for the first time in this March 30, 1881 issue of Puck. The small item in the middle of this page gives four examples of 'typographical art' -- joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment.

Treasure Island Map (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883)

While there is no evidence of real pirates ever leaving a 'treasure map' showing where they had buried their stolen goods, with 'X' marking the spot, Stevenson's fictional device has continued to excite generations of children to this day.

Cubism and Abstract Art (Alfred Barr, 1936)

Barr's striking diagram highlighted the role that cubism had played in the development of modernism. Like the exhibition and book that accompanied it, Barr's diagram was a watershed in the history of 20th-century modernism.

Intel 4004 CPU (Ted Hoff, Stanley Mazor, Masatoshi Shima, Federico Faggin, Philip Tai, and Wayne Pickette, 1971)

Wayne Pickette suggested that Intel could use a 'computer on a board' for one of their projects with the Japanese company Busicom. Pickette drew this diagram with Philip Tai for the 4004 demonstration board.

Complement 100 Diagrams That Changed the World with 17 equations that changed the world and the fantastic Cartographies of Time.

Thanks, Kirstin

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art  culture  design  science  technology  books  data_visualization  history  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
How To Write Letters: A Vintage Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette, 1876
“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art.”

As a lover of old letters, I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing — an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. So I was utterly delighted to discover a rare and remarkable little book titled How To Write Letters (UK; public library; public domain) — a “manual of correspondence, showing the correct structure, composition, punctuation, formalities, and uses of the various kinds of Letters, Notes and Cards,” written in 1876 by J. Willis Westlake, an English Literature professor at the State Normal School in Millersville, Pennsylvania. From how to address the recipient and sign your name to the conventions of business vs. social vs. personal letters to the most elegant way to fold the sheet, Westlake presents a guide not only to the craft of writing letters, but also to the conceptual elements of composition and the role of letters as social currency.

At once delightfully dated in many of its cultural assumptions — particularly the epistolary norms for the sexes — and charmingly urbane in its practical prescriptions, this tiny treasure tells us as much about the long-lost era of its origin as it does about the standards we’ve chosen, and chosen to leave behind, in our own. Above all, it reminds us that sentiment lives not only in what is being communicated but also in how it is being communicated — an osmosis all the more important today, when cold screens and electronic text have left the written word homogenized and devoid of expressive form.

Westlake begins:

Nearly all the writing of most persons is in the form of letters; and yet in many of our schools this kind of composition is almost entirely neglected. This neglect is probably due in some measure to the fact that heretofore there has been no complete and systematic treatise on the subject of letter-writing. When it is considered, that in the art of correspondence there is much that is conventional, requiring a knowledge of social customs, which, if not early taught, is obtained only after many years of observation and experience; and that the possession or want of this knowledge does much to determine a person’s standing in cultured society,– the value of this art, and of a thorough text-book by which it may be taught, will be duly appreciated.

[…]

As letter-writing is the most generally practiced, so also is it the most important, practically considered, of all kinds of composition.

He makes a note on quantity vs. quality:

Take pains; write as plainly and neatly as possible — rapidly if you can, slowly if you must. Good writing affects us sympathetically, giving us a higher appreciation both of what is written and of the person who wrote it. Don’t say, I haven’t time to be so particular. Take time; or else write fewer letters and shorter ones. A neat well-worded letter of one page once a month is better than a slovenly scrawl of four pages once a week. In fact, bad letters are like store bills: the fewer and the shorter they are, the better pleased is the recipient.

He then goes on to list several guidelines for an excellent letter:

Style of Writing. — All flourishing is out of place in a letter. The writing should be plain and, if possible, elegant, so that it maybe both easy to read and gratifying to the taste. The most fashionable style for ladies is what is called the English running-hand. A rather fine hand is preferable for ladies, and a medium one for gentlemen. A person who writes a large hand should use large paper and leave wide spaces between the lines.
Skipping Pages. — After reaching the bottom of the first page, it is generally better to continue the letter on the second, instead of passing to the third; because the writer may find more to say than he at first thought of, and after having filled the first and third pages, may be compelled to go back to the second, and thence to the fourth.
Crossing. — Many persons, ladies especially, have a habit of crossing their letters. It is better not to do it. If one sheet is not large enough to hold all you have to say without crossing, take an extra half-sheet, or a sheet if need be. Crossing does not seem to be entirely respectful to your friend; for it implies (though he may not so understand it) that you do not think enough of him to use any more paper on his account. Besides, crossed writing is hard to read; and you have no right to task your friend’s eyesight and tax his time by compelling him to decipher it. Cross-lining came into use when paper was dear and postage high. Then there was some excuse for it. Now there is none.
Blots and Interlineations. — Of course no blots are allowable. Better rewrite the letter than send a blotted one. And avoid, as far as possible, interlineations and erasures. A few words my be interlined in a very small hand, but even a single interlined word mars the beauty of a page. A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art. As beauty of words, tone, and manner adds a charm to speech, so elegance of materials, writing, and general appearance, enhances the pleasure bestowed by a letter.

A separate chapter explores the rhetoric of letters, “the art of expressing thought and feeling in letters with clearness, force, and elegance,” emphasizing the importance of an incubation period for ideas and the organization of knowledge, and stressing the curatorial element of composition:

The general principles applicable to the composition of letters will be discussed under two heads : 1. Invention; 2. Expression.

Invention is the action of the mind that precedes writing. In all kinds of composition, there are two things necessary: first, to have something to say; second, to say it. Invention is finding something to say. It is the most difficult part of composition, as it is a purely intellectual process, requiring originality, talent, judgment, and information; while expression is to some extent a matter of mechanical detail, and subject to rules that can be easily understood and applied. A person can write out in a few weeks or months a work the invention of which requires the thought and labor of many years. Yet both parts of composition are equally essential. It is certainly a noble thing to have great thoughts, but without the power of expressing them the finest sentiments are unavailable.

Invention includes two operations : (1.) The collection of materials; and (2.) their proper and orderly arrangement.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is a section on the etiquette and subtleties of paper and ink selection, itself a special kind of art that can communicate an extraordinary range of sentiments — something entirely lost to us in the age of digital type on sterile screens. Westlake advises:

Paper. — The paper used should be such as is suitable and intended for the purpose. It may now be had in infinite variety, adapted to all tastes and wants.

[…]

Never write a private letter on foolscap paper: to do so is awkward, clumsy, and generally inexcusable. If compelled to use it, for want of any other, an apology should be offered.

Never send a half-sheet letter, except on business: and never send less than a half-sheet under any circumstances. For a social letter, even if you write only a line or two, use a whole sheet. To use part of a sheet looks mean and stingy, and is disrespectful to the receiver.

Color. — No color is more elegant and tasteful than white, for any kind of letter, and gentlemen should use no other. Ladies may use delicately tinted and perfumed paper if they choose, but for a man to use it is, to say the least, in very bad taste. For business letters, no color is allowable but pure or bluish white.

Persons who have lost a near relative may use ‘mourning paper’ — that is, paper with a black border — and envelopes to match; the width of the border corresponding somewhat to the nearness of the relationship and the recentness of the bereavement.

He then moves on to envelopes:

The envelope should be adapted, both in size and color, to the paper.

[…]

Gentlemen may use either white or buff envelopes in writing to each other ; but it is not allowable to send a buff envelope to a lady, nor do ladies use that kind at all. If tinted paper is used, the envelope must have the same tint.

[…]

Both paper and envelopes should be of fine quality. It conduces to fine penmanship, and perhaps inspires the writer with fine thoughts. Coarse paper, coarse language, coarse thoughts, — all coarse things seem to be associated.

And let’s not forget the ink:

Never write a letter with red ink. Indeed, it is in better taste to discard all fancy inks, and use simple black. It is the most durable color, and one never tires of it. At one time purple ink was used in the War Department at Washington; but the discovery was afterwards made that this color would fade, and an order was issued that all the records that had been made with purple ink should be recopied with black ink.

Even today, we read a great deal into email sign-offs — their warmth or coldness, the degree of familiarity they connote, the expectation they imply. Westlake offers several examples, including ones by famous historical figures, of what is known as the “complimentary close”::

The Complimentary Close is the phrase of courtesy, respect, or endearment used at the end of a letter.

As in the salutation, the particular words used vary according to circumstance.

Social letters admit of an almost infinite variety of forms of complimentary close. The following are a few out of many examples that might be given: –

Your friend; Your sincere friend; Yours with esteem; Yours very respectfully; Your loving daughter; Your affectionate father; Ever yours; Yours affectionately and for ever (… [more]
art  culture  books  history  vintage  writing  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
All the 2012 Best-of Reading Lists, Together at Last
The year’s finest reading, organized by subject.

By popular demand, here are all of this year’s best-of omnibus reading lists, in one shareable place:

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december 2012 by rcr1956
Mark Twain on Morality vs. Intelligence
“If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.”

“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait,’” Helen Keller marveled upon meeting Mark Twain. Indeed, while Twain may be America’s most celebrated humorist, underpinning — and fueling — his remarkable wit was unparalleled insight into the human condition, a kind of profound philosophical prism through which his comedic genius was bent. That gift of Twain’s comes to life with astounding eloquence and elegance in this passage from Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 (UK; public library), in which he turns a cautious eye towards the relationship between human morality and the intellect, wincing at our anthropocentric sense of entitlement — something all the more tragically palpable a century later, amidst environmental degradation, overpopulation, and economic collapse. Twain writes:

We have no respectworthy evidence that the human being has morals. He is himself the only witness. Persons who do not know him value his testimony. They think he is not shallow and vain because he so despises the peacock for possessing these qualities. They are deceived into not regarding him as a beast and a brute, because he uses these terms to disapprovingly describe qualities which he possesses, yet which are not possessed by any creature but himself. On his verbal testimony they take him for every creditable thing which he particularly isn’t, and (intentionally?) refrain from examining the testimony of his acts. It is the safest way, but man did not invent it, it was the polecat. From the beginning of time the polecats have quite honestly and naively regarded themselves as representing in the animal kingdom what the rose represents in the vegetable kingdom. This is because they do not examine.

[…]

However, moralless man, bloody and atrocious man, is high above the other animals in his one great and shining gift — intellectuality. It took him ages and ages to demonstrate the full magnitude and majesty of his gift, but he has accomplished it at last. For ages it was a mean animal indeed that was not vastly his superior in certain splendid faculties. In the beginning he had nothing but the puny strength of his unweaponed hands to protect his life with, and he was as helpless as a rabbit when the lion, the tiger, the elephant, the mastodon and the other mighty beasts came against him; in endurance he was far inferior to the other creatures; in fleetness on the land there was hardly an animal in the whole list that couldn’t shame him; in fleetness in the water every fish could excel him; his eyesight was a sarcasm: for seeing minute things it was blindness as compared to the eyesight of the insects, and the condor could see a sheep further than he could see a hotel. But by the ingenuities of his intellect he has equipped himself with all these gifts artificially and has made them unapproachably effective. His locomotive can outstrip all birds and beasts in speed and beat them all in endurance; there are no eyes in the animal world that can compete with his microscope and his telescope; the strength of the tiger and the elephant is weakness, compared with the force which he carries in his mile-range terrible gun. In the beginning he was given ‘dominion’ over the animal creation — a very handsome present, but it was mere words and represented a non-existent sovereignty. But he has turned it into an existent sovereignty, himself, and is master, of late. In physical talents he was a pauper when he started; by grace of his intellect he is incomparably the richest of all the animals now. But he is still a pauper in morals — incomparably the poorest of the creatures in that respect. The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.

In the century since, philosopher Thomas Nagel has spoken to the importance of intellectual humility in understanding our place in the universe, behavioral economist Dan Ariely has put Twain’s insight to the test in the lab, demonstrating the positive correlation between creative intelligence and immorality, and Albert Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs have all made passionate cases for intuition over the intellect.

But perhaps it was philosopher Bertrand Russell who had it right in balancing the intellectual and the moral with his simple, timelessly wise words: “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.”

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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culture  psychology  books  history  Mark_Twain  philosophy  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
New guidelines can improve treatment for severe heart attack patients
New streamlined guidelines will help healthcare providers better treat patients with the most severe type of heart attacks, according to an American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology statement.

The guidelines are published online in the American Heart Association journal Circulation and the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
read more
Culture  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
How to Avoid Work: A 1949 Guide to Doing What You Love
“Life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want.”

“There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. Indeed, finding a sense of purpose and doing what makes the heart sing is one of the greatest human aspirations — and yet too many people remain caught in the hamster wheel of unfulfilling work. In 1949, career counselor William J. Reilly penned How To Avoid Work (UK; public library) — a short guide to finding your purpose and doing what you love. Despite the occasional vintage self-helpism of the tone, the book is remarkable for many reasons — written at the dawn of the American corporate era and the golden age of the housewife, it not only encouraged people of all ages to pursue their passions over conventional, safe occupations, but it also spoke to both men and women with equal regard.

Reilly begins by exploring the mythologies of work and play, something Lewis Hyde has written of beautifully, with an uncomfortable but wonderfully apt metaphor:

Most [people] have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work — and that anything they do outside ‘working’ hours is play. There is no logic to that.

[…]

Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work.

If you don’t get out now, you may end up like the frog that is placed in a pot of fresh water on the stove. As the temperature is gradually increased, the frog feels restless and uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to jump out. Without being aware that a chance is taking place, be is gradually lulled into unconsciousness.

Much the same thing happens when you take a person and put him in a job which he does not like. He gets irritable in his groove. His duties soon become a monotonous routine that slowly dulls his senses. As I walk into offices, through factories and stores, I often find myself looking into the expressionless faces of people going through mechanical motions. They are people whose minds are stunned and slowly dying.

To illustrate the idea that “life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want,” Reilly quotes Amelia Earhart, a woman of strong and refreshing liberal for their time opinions:

I flew the Atlantic because I wanted to. If that be what they call ‘a woman’s reason,’ make the most of it. It isn’t, I think, a reason to be apologized for by man or woman. . . .

Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.

He admonishes against the toxic “should”-culture we live in, arguably all the more pronounced today:

Actually, there is only one way in this world to achieve true happiness, and that is to express yourself with all your skill and enthusiasm in a career that appeals to you more than any other. In such a career, you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement. You feel you are making a contribution. It is not work.

[…]

To my mind, the world would be a much pleasanter and more civilized place to live in, if everyone resolved to pursue whatever is closest to his heart’s desire. We would be more creative and our productivity would be vastly increased.

Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.

When a young art student recently asked author Neil Gaiman what to make of people advising her against doing what she loves, his brilliant answer paralleled what Reilly so passionately argued some sixty-three years ago:

The greatest satisfaction you can obtain from life is your pleasure in producing, in your own individual way, something of value to your fellowmen. That is creative living!

When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn’t it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

For you, life can be a succession of glorious adventures. Or it can be a monotonous bore.

Take your choice!

Echoing Alan Watts’s litmus test of what you would do if money were no object, Reilly suggests:

No matter what your age or condition or experience, the sooner you find out what you really want to do and do it better, for that’s the only way anyone can avoid work.

[…]

Try this approach. Suppose you were financially independent and were perfectly free to do anything you wanted, what would you do, if anything?

If your inclinations are at all definite, the answer to this simple question provides at least a general definition of the field which you would enjoy most.

He outlines a general division of labor for any field:

In every business, art, trade or profession, there are four major jobs to be done:

Creative — inventing, discovering, or developing new ideas
Administrative — making plans and policies for the conduct and supervision of the entire business or project
Executive — directing the work of others in actually carrying out plans and policies in one or more departments or sections
Line — performing some individual routine task involving no responsibility for the work of others

If you have creative ability, you know it without anyone telling you. Your creative talents have demanded expression in your early youth. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether you have the ability to invent or to discover or to develop new ideas, you probably do not have this ability.

[…]

If you are a thoughtful person, slow to act, who enjoys analyzing, interpreting, and patiently summarizing the results of the activities of others; if you’re the kind of person who likes to pry into every single phase of an operation and to vie a business as a whole; if you get a big kick out of cautiously defining long-range plans and policies; if you’re strong on logic, you have the most important earmarks of an able administrator.

But if you like plenty of action, if you love to organize and direct other people as they carry out plans and policies, and if you’re perfectly content to confine your activities to one department of a business, you’d probably make a first-rate executive.

Reilly stresses the importance of the human factor:

Often, success or failure turns on this question of human relations. … Any time you do not enjoy the human relations involved in any job, sooner or later that job’s bound to be work, not fun.

In the third chapter, he turns to the three most common excuses preventing us from pursuing what we want to do:

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it’s always one or more of three:

‘I haven’t the time.’
‘I haven’t the money.’
‘My folks don’t want me to.’

He then goes on to examine — and debunk — each of the three excuses, showing that “each of them melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it.” As an enormous believer in making time, rather than finding time, for what matters, I find his meditation on time, reminiscent of Montaigne’s on death and the art of living, particularly important:

Without Time nothing is possible. Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats eery living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

Indeed, to Reilly success is very much a product of deliberate time investment and discipline — something great writers can attest to. To illustrate “the remarkable achievements possible for anyone who will consistently devote even as little as one hour a day to one single purpose,” Reilly cites an anecdote in which a friend of Thomas Edison’s marveled at the great inventor’s extreme productivity and the stringency of his 18-hour-workdays dedication to success. Edison retorts:

You do something all day long, don’t you? Everyone does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put sixteen good hours, and it is certain that you have been doing something all that time. The only difference is that you do a great many things and I do one. If you took the time in question and applied it in one direction, you would succeed. Success is sure to follows such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have one thing to stick to, letting all else go.

Reilly observes:

But a person cannot apply himself to anything incessantly without growing weary unless he loves it — unless it’s not work. And that’s the real explanation of Edison’s full use of his time.

If you were to spend an hour alone with the loud tick of a clock, or better yet, if you could spend an hour completely alone with an hour-glass, watching the sands of Time quickly slip through that vessel, and realize that 100 years from now you and i will both be gone, then you would begin to appreciate that TIME is the ONLY thing you really DO HAVE and that you alone can do anything you wish with the Time that is yours.

He… [more]
culture  psychology  books  vintage  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
Amelia Earhart on Marriage
“I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.”

Charles Darwin gleefully weighed the pros and cons of marriage, ultimately deciding in its favor, while Susan Sontag called it “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings.” But marriage, of course, is like most things in life — all else being equal, you get out of it exactly what you put in.

Amelia Earhart — pioneering aviator, bestselling author, and one altogether fierce lady — must have known that when she sat down on the morning of February 7th, 1931, and penned this exacting, resolute letter to her publicist and future husband, George Putnam. Found in the out-of-print volume Letters from Amelia, 1901-1937 (public library), it spells out (typo notwithstanding) exactly what Earhart wanted — and didn’t want — in a marriage, a bold testament to her independent spirit and liberal mindset just before the golden age of the housewife and shortly after the era of Victorian sexism.

Noank
Connecticut

The Square House
Church Street

Dear GPP

There are some things which should be writ before we are married — things we have talked over before — most of them.

You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations but have no heart to look ahead.

On our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the difficulties which arise may best be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.

Please let us not interfere with the others’ work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.

I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.

I will try to do my best in every way and give you that part of me you know and seem to want.

A.E.

The two married that afternoon. Putnam had proposed six times before Earhart finally said her highly conditional “yes.” She kept her last name and refused to be called Mrs. Putnam, even against The New York Times’ insistence. They remained together until Earhart’s tragic disappearance in 1937.

↬ Feministing ↬ @dearsarah

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culture  Amelia_Earhart  books  history  letters  love  women  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
Mobile app boosts weight loss by 15 pounds
CHICAGO --- Using a mobile app that tracks eating and activity helped people lose an average of 15 pounds and keep it off for at least a year, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study.

But the technology only aided weight loss when its users also attended regular classes about nutrition and exercise. The app alone didn't help.
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Culture  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
Susan Sontag on Courage and Resistance
“Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally.”

The confluence of this week’s anniversary of Rosa Parks’s arrest, which sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the recent cease-fire in the Gaza conflict reminded me of “On Courage and Resistance” — the timeless Oscar Romero Award keynote address Susan Sontag delivered on March 30, 2003, originally published in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library). In honoring the Israeli soldiers who defied orders and refused to serve in the occupied territories, Sontag examines the osmosis between individual acts and collective fate, the interplay between morality and courage, and the role of fear in violence:

Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.

The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are — and always will be. How things really are — and always will be — is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.

The cry of the antiprincipled: ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ The best given the circumstances, of course.

In discussing the relationship between morality and courage, Sontag speaks to the kind of “moral imagination” so essential for happiness:

At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve.

[…]

Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of ‘moral courage’ — because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too.

She zooms in on the Israel-Palestine conflict and its reverberations around the world:

A wounded and fearful country, Israel, is going through the greatest crisis of its turbulent history, brought about by the policy of steadily increasing and reinforcing settlements on the territories won after its victory in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The decision of successive Israeli governments to retain control over the West Bank and Gaza, thereby denying their Palestinian neighbors a state of their own, is a catastrophe — moral, human, and political — for both peoples. The Palestinians need a sovereign state. Israel needs a sovereign Palestinian state. Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to courageous Israeli Jewish witnesses, journalists, architects, poets, novelists, professors — among others — who have described and documented and protested and militated against the sufferings of the Palestinians living under the increasingly cruel terms of Israeli military subjugation and settler annexation.

Long before the “peer progressive” movement, Sontag makes an infinitely important point about the incrementally cumulative value of individual acts of resistance:

The Israeli soldiers who are resisting service in the Occupied Territories are not refusing a particular order. They are refusing to enter the space where illegitimate orders are bound to be given… What the refuseniks have done — there are now more than one thousand of them, more than 250 of whom have gone to prison — does not contribute to tell us how the Israelis and Palestinians can make peace beyond the irrevocable demand that the settlements be disbanded. The actions of this heroic minority cannot contribute to the much-needed reform and democratization of the Palestinian Authority. Their stand will not lessen the grip of religious bigotry and racism in Israeli society or reduce the dissemination of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in the aggrieved Arab world. It will not stop the suicide bombers.

It simply declares: enough. Or: there is a limit. Yesh gvul.

It provides a model of resistance. Of disobedience. For which there will always be penalties.

Sontag then issues a critique all the more apt today, nearly a decade of wars later:

Our ‘United We Stand’ or ‘Winner Takes All’ ethos: the United States is a country that has made patriotism equivalent to consensus.

On the flawed logic of going to — and staying at — war:

The force of arms has its own logic. If you commit an aggression and others resist, it is easy to convince the home front that the fighting must continue. Once the troops are there, they must be supported. It becomes irrelevant to question why the troops are there in the first place.

Sontag zooms back out into the bigger picture:

Let’s not underestimate the force of what we are opposing.

The world is, for almost everyone, that over which we have virtually no control. Common sense and the sense of self-protectiveness tell us to accommodate to what we cannot change.

It’s not hard to see how some of us might be persuaded of the justice, the necessity of a war. Especially of a war that is formulated as small, limited military actions that will actually contribute to peace or improve security; of an aggression that announces itself as a campaign of disarmament — admittedly, disarmament of the enemy; and, regrettably, requiring the application of overpowering force. An invasion that calls itself, officially, a liberation.

Every violence in war has been justified as a retaliation. We are threatened. We are defending ourselves. The others, they want to kill us. We must stop them.

[…]

Never mind the disparity of forces, of wealth, of firepower — or simply of population. How many Americans know that the population of Iraq is 24 million, half of whom are children? (The population of the United States, as you will remember, is 290 million.) Not to support those who are coming under fire from the enemy seems like treason.

She illustrates the case for personal responsibility — something Joan Didion pointed to as the pillar of character — with an example of how seemingly ineffectual individual acts of resistance can spark massively influential chain reactions of effects:

Thoreau’s going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment (famously, a single night in jail) has not ceased to inspire principled resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it led directly to the formation of a movement of protesters in faraway Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located.

The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.

Thus: it is not in the best interests of Israel to be an oppressor.

Thus: it is not in the best interests of the United States to be a hyperpower, capable of imposing its will on any country in the world, as it chooses.

Sontag concludes with a necessary reminder that, just like the light and heat of the distant sun are responsible for the flame in your fireplace, our local, individual actions and inextricably connected to and fractionally instrumental in our global, collective fate:

Beyond these struggles, which are worthy of our passionate adherence, it is important to remember that in programs of political resistance the relation of cause and effect is convoluted and often indirect. All struggle, all resistance is — must be — concrete. And all struggle has a global resonance.

If not here, then there. If not now, then soon. Elsewhere as well as here.

At the Same Time is a remarkable anthology in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement with Sontag’s insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.

Donating = Loving
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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up… [more]
culture  politics  history  philosophy  psychology  sociology  Susan_Sontag  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
Method developed by VTT targets diagnosis of early Alzheimer's disease
A software tool called PredictAD developed by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland promises to enable earlier diagnosis of the disease on the basis of patient measurements and large databases. Alzheimer's disease currently takes on average 20 months to diagnose in Europe. VTT has shown that the new method could allow as many as half of patients to get a diagnosis approximately a year earlier.
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Culture  from google
december 2012 by rcr1956
How Thomas Jefferson Pioneered the Tomato, Championed Urban Farming, and Taught Americans to Make Coffee
The Founding Father’s lesser-known but monumental contributions to modern culture.

If you, like me, believed that Julia Child brought French cuisine to America, you’re off — nearly two centuries off. It turns out we owe the feat to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 made a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James “Jame” Hemmings, to apprentice him to one of France’s finest chefs. In exchange for going along with the plan, Jefferson would grant Jame his freedom. “Thus began the most interesting and influential culinary partnership in American history,” writes Thomas J. Craughwell in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America (public library). But perhaps most fascinating in Craughwell’s account is the role Jefferson played in championing vegetables and minimal animal products more than 200 years before Michael Pollan, popularizing indispensable plant species previously thought inedible, and even pioneering modern-day buzzword concepts like urban farming.

For starters, Jefferson took special pride in his diet. In a letter to his physician in 1819, he wrote:

I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.

And it was an active, actionable pride that he backed with practical tactics. Craughwell writes:

In his thousand-foot-long vegetable garden, Jefferson grew almost all the vegetables, fruits, and herbs he needed to feed himself, his family, and their guests. Over a period of nearly sixty years, he experimented with ninety-nine species of vegetables and three hundred thirty varieties. He also cultivated plants that were unknown in his neighbors’ gardens, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and peanuts.

Jefferson was ahead of his time in many ways, including the intersection of food and aesthetics and the notion of edible architecture:

The man who built one of the most beautiful homes in eighteenth-century America also desired his garden to be visually appealing. Along the border of the square in which he grew tomatoes, for example, he planted okra and sesame plants. The smooth, red skin of the tomatoes contrasted with the tough, deep green of the okra, while the sesame plant, standing five or six feet tall, added height and visual interest. When he planted eggplant, he alternated white and purple varieties. The cherry trees he placed along the walkway through the garden, where they would provide shade.

So intense was Jefferson’s passion for vegetation that he once wrote:

There is not a shoot of grass that springs uninteresting to me.

More than mere curiosity, however, Jefferson’s relationship with vegetables was an almost political one, reining in monumental cultural shifts in culinary perceptions:

He was one of the first Virginians to grow and eat tomatoes, or ‘tomatas,’ as he called them. Most Americans thought the tomato was poisonous (and, indeed, it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, though its low toxicity levels pose no risk to humans), and so it was an astonishing event when, in 1806, Jefferson served them to guests at the President’s House.

He also had a soft spot for cabbage:

[Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson's maître d'hôtel] records fifty-one purchases in 1806 alone. At Monticello, Jefferson not only raised his own cabbage — eighteen varieties in al — he also bought some from this slaves. Closely related to cabbage is sea kale, which was also grown at Monticello; Jefferson found a variety that was perennial, thus eliminating the expense of purchasing seedlings every year.

His plant pioneering didn’t stop there:

In 1812 Jefferson became the first gardener in his neighborhood to plant the hot Texas bird pepper, which his cooks used to spice up sauces. And he must have been fond of asparagus, too. Although he devoted only one square in his garden to the vegetable, he tended it with special care, mulching the plot with tobacco leaves and fertilizing it with manure. His Garden Book includes entires for twenty-two years that record the date on which the first plate of asparagus was brought to his table.

In another chapter on how Jefferson pioneered African dishes at the Monticello, Craughwell shares the Founding Father’s curious coffee recipe:

On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water.

boil on hot ashes lined with coal till the meat disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated.

pour in three times through a flannel strainer.

it will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee.

an ounce of coffee meal makes 1 ½ cup of clear coffee in this way.

the flannel must be rinsed out in hot or cold water for every making.

The rest of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée is an equally delectable chronicle of the beloved Founding Father, political philosopher, amateur naturalist, and zealous bibliophile’s lesser-known but remarkable contributions to modern cuisine and food politics.

Donating = Loving
In 2012, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner:

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I'm doing something right.
culture  politics  books  food  history  Thomas_Jefferson  from google
november 2012 by rcr1956
An Animated Open Letter to President Obama on the State of Science Education
Reigniting the spark of physics in an education ethos stuck 150 years in the past.

Many of us living in the United States have recently taken a massive exhale at the triumphant news of four more years of sanity and progress. But it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows for President Obama, who will have to address some serious challenges. The fine folks of MinutePhysics — who have previously explained why the color pink doesn’t exist, why the past is different from the future, and why it’s dark at night — have zoomed in one of them in this animated open letter to the President, addressing an astonishing gap in physics education: Namely, the fact that most high school curricula cover none of the physics breakthroughs that have taken place in the past 150 years, including “the topic of every single Nobel Prize in physics since…always.” MinutePhysics advises the President to take a cue from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — men “committed 100% to the dissemination of the awesomeness of the universe” — and reignite the educational spark of physics.

The United States: A country with 5,000 nuclear weapons, birthplace of the world’s computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock, and creator of the Global Positioning System. Chances are, if you just took regular American high school physics, you don’t know one iota behind the science behind those things. … That’s because high school physics students across most of America are not required to learn about pretty much any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865. Yes, 1865. That’s the year the Civil War ended and well over a decade before Albert Einstein was even born.

Sadly, even if modern physics were required in high school, the question of how much that would actually promote an understanding of physics is a different matter — you needn’t look further than the latest data on state science standards to sigh in desperation:

Luckily, though certainly no substitute for formal education, the internet offers a worthy complement to what the classroom leaves out. To inject your daily information diet with some science-plus magic and wisdom, follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, read Joe Hanson’s fantastic It’s Okay To Be Smart and Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science (and consider the occasional donation — they’re that good), and peruse the Brain Pickings science archive.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I'm doing something right.
culture  politics  science  animation  from google
november 2012 by rcr1956
Living abroad can bring success, if you do it right - just like anything else
"Travel broadens the mind" goes the old adage, and potential employers often agree, valuing the open-mindedness and creativity fostered by such worldliness. But according to new Tel Aviv University research, not all international experiences are created equal.
read more
Culture  from google
november 2012 by rcr1956
The Nature of Fun: David Foster Wallace on Why Writers Write
“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

On the heels of the highly anticipated new David Foster Wallace biography comes Both Flesh and Not: Essays (public library) — a collection spanning twenty years of Wallace’s nonfiction writing on subjects as wide-ranging as math, Borges, democracy, the U.S. Open, and the entire spectrum of human experience in between. Among the anthology’s finest is an essay titled “The Nature of Fun” — a meditation on why writers write, encrusted in Wallace’s signature blend of self-conscious despondency, even more self-conscious optimism, and overwhelming self-awareness. It was originally published in 1998 in Fiction Writer and also included in the wonderful 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction.

After offering an extended and rather gory metaphor for the writer’s creative output and a Zen parable about unpredictability, he gets to the meat of things:

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which — since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow — is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing — your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.

Here, Wallace echoes Vonnegut, who famously advised, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Indeed, this lusting after prestige and approval is a familiar detractor of creative purpose in any endeavor. Wallace goes on:

At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.

He adds to literary history’s most famous insights on the relationship between truth and fiction:

The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation — fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you’re now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.

He concludes on a Bradbury-like note:

The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.

Both Flesh and Not is excellent in its entirety and just as quietly, unflinchingly soul-stirring as “The Nature of Fun.”

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I'm doing something right.
culture  psychology  books  creativity  David_Foster_Wallace  writing  from google
november 2012 by rcr1956
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