What is possible

In November, 2008, just after Obama’s election, the Yes-men handed out an optimistic prophesy for the world a few months down the road. Video about the NYTimes parody

Yes-men web site

1 April 2013

We’re happier when we are fulfilling our mission, offering our unique gifts

Miracles are not the intercession of an external, divine agency in violoation of the laws of nature. A miracles is something impossible from an old understanding of reality, and possible from a new one.

— Charles Eisenstein (from TEDx talk)

The world around us is built from a story. By acting from a different story, we disrupt the psychic substructure of our mythology, and we offer an alternative.

Eisenstein closes by reminding his audience that we are here to serve and to offer our gifts, and inviting his audience to “bow more deeply into that mission.  If you do it, I predict that you will experience an unexpected opportunity to act on that intention.  It will be just at the edge of your courage, but not past it.”

2 April 2013

Information wants to be free

The Digital Public Library of America, to be launched on April 18, is a project to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge.

Speaking broadly, the DPLA represents the confluence of two currents that have shaped American civilization: utopianism and pragmatism. The utopian tendency marked the Republic at its birth, for the United States was produced by a revolution, and revolutions release utopian energy—that is, the conviction that the way things are is not the way they have to be. When things fall apart, violently and by collective action, they create the possibility of putting them back together in a new manner, according to higher principles...

— read more from an article by Robert Darnton in the NYReview

3 April 2013

Full faith and credit

Four years ago, a mysterious, anonymous geek created a new form of money, and – miraculously – it has caught on.  Perhaps the best innovation of Mr Nakamoto was to build a system in which accounting for who owns which bitcoin is distributed over thousands of high-power computers.  He enlisted all those computers by distributing bitcoins to the winners of computational contests.  Each bitcoin is awarded to the first computer that turns in a correct answer to a math problem that requires a great deal of number crunching.  A new such problem is put out there every 10 seconds.

This is inspiring because it represents a decentralization of the power to create money. At one time, money was created by the King, and then by democratic governments – subject to corruption, but ultimately responsible to the people. Then, Western democracies ceded this power and control to central banks, which now have a chokehold on Western, capitalist economies.

As the central banks get deeper into trouble, the price of bitcoins has been bid up of late, from pennies in 2009 to $70 as of this week.

That a number of panicked Europeans appear to have reckoned the wildly volatile, vulnerable, and tiny bitcoin market a preferable alternative to their own banking system...illustrates the broader collapse of trust that is threatening the world of global banking and fiat money.  The weakness in existing currencies stems from lack of faith in institutions—particularly central banks, which are often in league with commercial and investment banks. When a government bails out a failed bank or insurance company—in essence, by printing money—the net effect is that the currency as a whole is debased, in favor of a few and at the literal expense of everyone else, which amounts to a fair description of today’s global financial system. Hence the sudden appeal of bitcoins, which appear, for the moment, at least, to be immune to the machinations of inept or crooked bankers and politicians.

— Read more from the New Yorker

4 April 2013

The fourteenth precept

Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realisation of the Way. (For brothers and sisters who are not monks and nuns:) Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. In sexual relations, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.

— #14 of the Fourteen Precepts of Thich Nhat Hahn

Focusing just on the first sentence:  Pain and pleasure offer some guidance and feedback from moment to moment about whether we are nurturing our bodies or damaging them.  But there are pleasures that are bad for us in the long run, and discomforts that are good for us in the long run, and only with knowledge and discipline can we care for ourselves optimally.

There are three common ways we mistreat our bodies.

  • Work: Focusing on a task to be accomplished, we can damage skin or muscle or hearing as we neglect the sensory feedback that tells us we are hurting ourselves.
  • Addictions: We persist in doing things that offer pleasure in the moment, but which damage the body in the long run.
  • Sloth: Exercising as hard and as frequently as our bodies would like requires discipline and discomfort.  Our bodies like to be pushed periodically to their limits of strength, energy consumption, and physical endurance. 

5 April 2013

Early Schumann

With the 18 short piano pieces of Davidsbündlertänze (Op 6), 27-year-old Robert Schumann laid down the gauntlet for a new era of romantic piano music.  The name comes from an imaginary league of ‘Davids’ set to fight the cultural straight-laced cultural Goliath of the day.

Listen to Andras Schiff play the whole set. (15 minutes in is my favorite, #12. It’s very short.)

6 April 2013

I have laid the perfect foundation for wonders yet to be revealed.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Perhaps that is because miracles spring fully formed from the void, and need no foundation.

7 April 2013

Better to do nothing than to waste your time.

Sharon Salzberg

8 April 2013

Wizard of Schenectady

He stood just four feet tall, his body contorted by a hump in his back and a crooked gait, and his stunted torso gave the illusion that his head, hands and feet were too big. But he was a giant among scientific thinkers, counting Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as friends, and his contributions to mathematics and electrical engineering made him one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable men of his time.

— Read more from Smithsonian Mag

Charles Steinmetz, born this day in 1865, came to America from Poland at a time when socialists were persecuted in Europe, and freer here to speak their minds. America was electrifying, Steinmetz approached industrial electrical engineering as a science, rather than an experimental art.

Imaginary numbers had been known to mathematicians for hundreds of years, and Leonhardt Euler had discovered his magical formula eix=cos(x) + i sin(x) in the previous century.  But Steinmetz was the first to find practical uses for imaginary numbers, in computing the phase lags of alternating current.

9 April 2013

Primary Wonder

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

— Denise Levertov

10 April 2013


Two centuries before M.C. Escher

...confounded us with his optical illusions and play on perspective, William Hogarth (1697-1764) created Satire on False Perspective. Hogarth was a British painter and engraver sometimes credited with beginning the tradition of sequential art in Western culture due to his series of paintings depicting the rise and fall of a dandy, A Rake’s Progress. Complicated methods of using perspective to create an illusion of 3-dimensions in 2-dimensional art had been mastered (again) in Renaissance art a few centuries earlier. As well as a painter, Hogarth was something like a political cartoonist and satirist in his day. Here, in his engraving Satire on False Perspective are a number of visual absurdities.

— read more in a Scientific American article

Click on the image at right to see a larger version

11 April 2013


Paolo Soleri coined this term for the pursuit of architectural design that is consonant with ecological harmony.

“Arcology recognizes the necessity of the radical reorganization of the sprawling urban landscape into dense, integrated, three-dimensional cities in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture. The city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind.”

Starting in the 1970s, Soleri engineered a model city in Arizona which embodies principles that support human community, efficient transportation, and consonance with nature.

Could the American dream be reconsidered and reinvented?  Arcology seeks to embody a “Lean Alternative” to hyper consumption and wastefulness through more frugal, efficient, smart, yet elegant city designs.  Leanness is inherently obtainable via the miniaturization intrinsic to the Urban Effect.

read more about Soleri and the city of Arcosanti

12 April 2013

Learning from the Netherlands about bicycle culture

How did the Netherlands get almost everyone out of cars and onto bikes? No, it’s not the hash, and it’s not something particularly about the Dutch character. It has a lot to do with intention, planning and execution. Lessons we all can learn for a cleaner environment and a saner lifestyle.

— read more at Who-What-Why

13 April 2013

At the threshold of this life

Listen to Andrea Clearfield’s cantata Tse Go La, based on traditional music and culture of Tibet. (Scroll down to performance last week from University of Texas, Austin, under Dan Welcher)

Bare threshold of this life
Pass over, pass through
Our body, this vessel,
begins and ends anew.
In these mountains of our soul
we are willed into being, elemental:
Earth, water, fire, wind, space.
(Sa, lung, chu, mé, nam kha)
Gifted presence, this human form
Made of mother’s blood, father’s bone,
And that hidden inner spring.
This laboring night
Breathe into the hearth-bound
Burnishing of time.
Outside, an owl calls.
Come morning, the whole village will know:
A woman’s spent silence
A child’s crystal cry.

14 April 2013

In honor of Harriet Mitteldorf’s Birthday

How long have I carried this burden of feeling
     that something is tragically wrong?
What might I have felt or accomplished if only
     my grip on this chain were less strong?
How often have I isolated myself,
     nursed my umbrage, hung on feeling miffed?
What delights have I missed, what sweet music
     drowned out by this droning, lugubrious song?

Going forth, then, what project more worthy could be
     than to practice a temperament shift––
Let me toil and create and explore from a vantage
     of knowing that here I belong.
Every being I greet, every scene I encounter
     hath pow’r to inspire and uplift.
May I ever make mystery my craft,
     and regard every pebble a lustrous new gift.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Epilogue for cynics
...And what of the times when this pablum wears thin, with the pebble unmasked as a stone?
Am I back to square one, with no help from within? Am I left high and dry on my own?
No – I don’t have to believe in a mystical bliss just to get this damned weight off my back––
Dayenu - sufficient that I’m not in pain, and there’s nothing essential I lack.

15 April 2013

Hungarian traditional sound in the 20th Century

Listen to Csűrdöngölő Op 20 for strings standing up,
by Leó Weiner, born this day in 1885

16 April 2013


If you are old,
you know the resilient buds
come to greet you again--
And if you are young,
you take the magic and
hold it briefly
to what transforms you later.
The elders welcome the rising moments,
the pure grace of lingering.
What else is there? but to linger at
a rain-filled puddle, grasses bending back
into the earth,
flowers twisting into the sun
laying open blossoms,
incessant bird chatter--
their blind and beautiful assertions,
straight ahead love and work, together,
their timeless purpose unfolding.
Where does the day go when you are young?
Does it stop to hold your hand?
When you are old,
do you stop the lingering to hold someone else’s?
Spring is the gift we wait for-
the season to clasp to the bossom-
to capture like a broken butterfly’s wing.
We mend ourselves with its fragility,
the ache we come to know and love,
Like small creatures,
young and old.

— Kim Empson

17 April 2013

To health

---that I might be grateful for what I have been given, and dedicate my gifts to a good purpose.

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.
— Thornton Wilder

18 April 2013

Healing the earth while increasing food supply

This is an inspired video, packed with data - rather difficult to summarize, because Savory makes a detailed case for a counter-intuitive strategy for land management and CO2 abatement.  I encourage you to watch the video, because my summary doesn’t do it justice

(Incidentally - this message resonates with me because I heard the same theme from a Brazilian researcher just a year ago when I was visiting Univ of Sao Paulo. She seemed quite credible and competent, but sometimes it takes time for a new idea to sink in.)

2/3 of the earth's land surface is desert or becoming desert.  The impact on global warming is even larger than the CO2 emissions from all uses of fossil fuels combined.  It is possible to rescue this land, to restore the basis for prosperous ecosystems.  The conventional wisdom was that desertification is caused by livestock overgrazing.  But in fact, desertification has been going on since long before the human population explosion, and where it was tried, elimination of grazing animals has actually made the problem worse. 

The solution is to manage livestock to mimic natural processes.  In nature before man, grazing animals moved in great, dense herds, where they found safety in numbers from predators. The herds denuding the land, then quickly moved on.  In a season, they turned grasslands to dung (fertilizer), and then left the land to recover its productivity before coming back (in herds).  It sounds like hit-and-run overexploitation, but it seems that this is the use to which fast-growing grasslands and rainforest are adapted best. 

Where livestock is managed this way, the earth recovers from desertification, and can sustainably support large populations of livestock and humans.

Watch Allan Savory’s TED talk

19 April 2013

Episodes of stress promote growth of new neurons in the brain,
keep us healthy and flexible.

Much research has demonstrated that chronic stress elevates levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones, which suppresses the production of new neurons in the hippocampus, impairing memory. This is in addition to the effect that chronically elevated levels of stress hormones have on the entire body, such as increasing the risk of chronic obesity, heart disease and depression.

Less is known about the effects of acute stress, Kaufer said, and studies have been conflicting.

To clear up the confusion, Kirby subjected rats to what, to them, is acute but short-lived stress – immobilization in their cages for a few hours. This led to stress hormone (corticosterone) levels as high as those from chronic stress, though for only a few hours. The stress doubled the proliferation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, specifically in the dorsal dentate gyrus.

— from a UCBerkeley press release. Read more

20 April 2013


...I am blessed

Every once in a while

...I know it.

— Josh Mitteldorf

21 April 2013

Kant’s cosmology

After the Renaissance Man, before knowledge became so fragmented, there was Immanuel Kant, born this day in 1724.  150 years before Hubble, Kant proposed that the Milky Way was one galaxy among many.

Kant (who had a strong background in mathematics and physics) suggested, and astronomical measurements of stellar distances and line-of-sight velocities later confirmed, that the appearance of the night sky can be better explained if we posit that the visible stars belong to a huge, disk-like stellar system similar to the solar system, with the Sun circling a distant center in the Milky Way, just as Earth circles the Sun.  He went on to argue, again on sound scientific grounds, that the tiny patches of light that astronomers called “nebulae” were stellar systems comparable to our own, too distant for contemporary telescopes to resolve into stars.  Finally, he speculated that the astronomical universe was likewise a flattened, centrally condensed, self-gravitating system in which stellar systems play the same role as stars in stellar systems and planets in the solar system.

— from a new ms by David Layzer

22 April 2013

Truth is too simple for words
before thought gets tangled up in nouns and verbs
there is a wordless sound
a deep breathless sigh
of overwhelming relief
to find the end of fiction
in this ordinary
yet extraordinary moment
when words are recognized
as words
and truth is recognized
as everything else

Todd Welden

23 April 2013

from the 9th Duino Elegy

Why, if it's possible to come into existence
as laurel, say, a little darker green
than other trees, with ripples edging each
leaf (like a wind, smiling): why then
do we have to be human, and keep running from the fate
we are made for and long for?

Oh, not because of Happiness
that fleeting gift before the loss begins.
Not from curiosity, or to exercise the heart,
which the laurel could do too....

But because simply to be here is so much
and because what is here seems to need us,
this vanishing world that concerns us strangely —
us, the most vanishing of all. Once
for each, only once. Once and no more.
And we, too: just once. Never again. But
to have lived this once, even if only this once,
to have been of earth — that cannot be taken from us.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, tr Joanna Macy Read the rest

24 April 2013

Edward R Murrow

The last honest TV anchor was full of wisdom that seems perfectly aimed at the politics of 2013.

““No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.””

“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

“The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.”

— Edward R Murrow was born this day in 1908

“Anyone who isn't confused really doesn't understand the situation.”

25 April 2013

A sort of Pascal’s wager for scientific humanists

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development.  But I believe that we cannot know this, and that it makes sense to go on seeking a systematic understanding of how we and other living things fit into the world. 

— Thomas Nagel

26 April 2013

Sergei Prokofiev, born this day in 1891, was not considered a prodigy in the way that Mozart or Mendelssohn or even George Szell, his contemporary, were prodigies. Still, by the age of 12 he had composed four operas, a symphony, and about 70 small piano pieces.  That year, he became the youngest student ever to attend the Moscow Conservatory.

Through his life, he wished to compose abstract (atonal) music in the style that was gaining an intellectual following in Europe; but the Soviet government kept pushing him in the direction of appeal ing music for the masses. The result was that Prokofiev ended up writing some of the most enduring, deep and well-crafted movie music of all time, and orchestral works of unparalleled popular appeal.

Listen to the fourth movement of his Flute Sonata, performed by James Galway and Martha Argerich.

27 April 2013

Stop waiting.

28 April 2013

The real question is, What is the relationship between mind and brain?

Sam Parnia practices resuscitation medicine. In other words, he helps bring people back from the dead — and some return with stories. Their tales could help save lives, and even challenge traditional scientific ideas about the nature of consciousness.

“The evidence we have so far is that human consciousness does not become annihilated,” said Parnia, a doctor at Stony Brook University Hospital and director of the school’s resuscitation research program. “It continues for a few hours after death, albeit in a hibernated state we cannot see from the outside.”

Resuscitation medicine grew out of the mid-twentieth century discovery of CPR, the medical procedure by which hearts that have stopped beating are revived. Originally effective for a few minutes after cardiac arrest, advances in CPR have pushed that time to a half-hour or more.

New techniques promise to even further extend the boundary between life and death. At the same time, experiences reported by resuscitated people sometimes defy what’s thought to be possible. They claim to have seen and heard things, though activity in their brains appears to have stopped.

It sounds supernatural, and if their memories are accurate and their brains really have stopped, it’s neurologically inexplicable, at least with what’s now known. Parnia, leader of the Human Consciousness Project’s AWARE study, which documents after-death experiences in 25 hospitals across North America and Europe, is studying the phenomenon scientifically.

Parnia discusses his work in the new book Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death. Wired talked to Parnia about resuscitation and the nature of consciousness.

read more from Wired magazine

29 April 2013

Who does these things will never stumble

This is not a psalm of supplication.
This is a song that speaks
what is simple but is not obvious,
what is perfectly clear but not
easily grasped.

We know the truth. How can we live it,
day by day by glorious day,
in every breath that falls between us,
with each sacred step?
We know what works. We know what keeps us right
and gives us honor.
We know as well why
we stumble and slide.

This is not a song of supplication.
This is a declaration
of peace, of wholeness, of
what we own in our hearts,
and what we fear to lose,
what we do forget.

This is the sound of a covenant
remembered. This is the heart
that speaks and does not waver.
These are the hands that make,
legs that go, do
what desperately longs
to be done.

Susan Windle

30 April 2013

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design