Archive for October, 2008


October 31, 2008

  Hemingway wrote: “… a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weedfringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain.  You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there.  But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.”

  What a way to go through life.  If something is beautiful one should simply allow it to be so.  There is beauty all around if you’re open to it – especially if out in nature’s throes.  Your choice. 

  The river flows east and west here, a geographical anomaly with which I’ve never really become comfortable. (I guess it’s probably the reason I always carry a compass.) Rivers flow north to south in this hemisphere, right?

  Anyway, at sunrise, over these particular few days of fall, this orientation of the landscape makes for an incredible display on my drive to work in the morning.  Traveling west along its northern bank, the sun flames up over the horizon behind me and spectacularly engulfs our downtown some distance ahead as the river bends a bit southward – windows cracklingly ablaze and masonry all coppered up.

  Each year, for a moment, I ask myself if it is that time of year, or might there really be a fire?  I’m forced to turn off my radio and concentrate.  Soon, I realize that it’s my bit of autumnal bliss and relax and sometimes even pull over.  As I’ve said above, I’ve always enjoyed pyrotechnics.

  Further along, just before my office, a wooded island blocks view of the river (as long as limbs are leafed).  During these few days, by now several minutes past dawn, its canopy is burst ablaze, flames blowing about wildly, and spreading ever eastward.

  These are events of existential relativity just like rainbows and, uh, the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  You’re not there, they are fundamentally not seen or heard.  The rainbow only occurs in the brain of one with vision and in the right place at the right time.  Similarly, the tree may fall in the forest, but there is no sound if there is no tympanum upon which the sound wave for to fall.

  Shame, crime, sin to miss or dismiss or – more – not to enjoy any such sweet “spot of time”. 

Tip tops of trees
At dawn – peak autumn color
Like flames in a breeze

Poetry for Physicists

October 24, 2008

  I don’t like to revisit the same issue – at least not directly – but, well, in an entry level undergraduate physics course I read a book entitled: Physics for Poets  and I’ve thought ever since that there should also be something called Poetry for Physicists

  This came to mind recently while reading reviews of a new production of the opera Doctor Atomic which follows events leading up to the explosion of the first nuclear weapon in 1945.  The libretto was assembled from historical documents by Peter Sellars.  The end of the opening chorus goes like this:

A weapon has been developed
that is potentially destructive
beyond the wildest nightmares
of the imagination;
a weapon so ideally suited
to sudden attack
that a country’s major cities
might be destroyed overnight
by an ostensibly friendly power.
This weapon has been created
not by the devilish inspiration
of some warped genius
but by the arduous labor
of thousands of normal men and women
working for the safety of their country.

  Certainly I am glad Hitler didn’t cook it up before we did and the several hundred thousand Japanese who perished probably did substitute for many thousands of Allied deaths.  Somebody was going to figure it out and we’re lucky it was us.

  What did take me aback though was that during a recent dress rehearsal the composer, John Adams, met with one of original scientists who told him: “I didn’t know a single person at Los Alamos who wasn’t enthusiastic about using it.  Not a single person.”

  I’m no military strategist and won’t attempt to suggest what better course of action might have been taken, but will state the obvious: with such terrible power must come responsibility and perspective.  I wonder how that responsibility would have been managed if those with even the vaguest notions of what the ramifications of E = MC2 might be were versed in, say, ancient Greek literature.

  For example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King the title character meets King Laius on the road to Thebes and kills him due to a prideful perception of disrespect.  Only later does he find that Laius was his biological father.  Or the Odyssey in which that title character lands himself a ten year detour by haughtily mocking the Cyclops who was able to use information contained in the taunt to exact revenge.

  It isn’t a lack of knowledge or information that got those fellows into trouble, it was arrogance and a lack of humility.  There is actually a name for the concept – hubris – and it is well to keep in mind.  (Like every time I open my mouth!)

  Perhaps those scientists would have been chastened by knowledge of the myth of Prometheus.  He was the Greek god who gave fire to our ancestors and was punished by Zeus for having done so.  Chained to a rock, his liver was torn out and eaten by eagles, only to have it grow back and torn out again day after day. 

  Or how about something more recent:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.   Robert Frost

  As the pace of change ever increases discerning vision will only become more critical and as Nathalie Sarraute wrote: “Poetry is what makes the invisible appear”.

October 17, 2008


  Ever read or see A River Runs Through it?  Rare case of a wonderful book and movie both of which came to mind when I noticed that a new Norman Maclean Reader just came out.  River Runs Through It is the achingly beautiful autobiographical story of a Scottish Presbyterian minister father, two sons – one turbulent and one well grounded, and fly fishing on the Blackfoot River in Montana.  “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

  Mr. Maclean wrote that his purpose was to explore the “topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul”.  It is the soul of the tumultuous one, Paul, which lacks the sheltering layers most humans are able to maintain.  The exposure causes him to fall in with the rhythms of nature both harmonious and discordant.  He is a masterful fisherman, but also drawn to gambling and drinking and fighting.   

    “A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.”  Norman listens attentively.  At one the two brothers are fishing together and a big one gets away.  “Poets talk about ‘spots of time’, but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment.  No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.  I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.”

  The ‘poet’ Maclean invoked was Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence-depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse-our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

  Paul (played by Brad Pitt in the flic) had no capacity for reflection or introspection.  The river carries him wherever it goes.  At the end, after he is found beaten to death, there is an exchange between the father and Norman.  Father: “Do you think I could have helped him?”  Son: “Do you think I could have helped him?”  “How could a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?”  Maclean asks the reader.  He concludes: “I am haunted by waters.”

  Paul reminded me of Meriwether Lewis who, like he, apparently reveled and managed well in the dangers and difficulties that filled the expedition he led with William Clark, but once back in civilization and society floundered.  Easy street was his most difficult traverse.  He was found dead of gunshot wounds two years later.  It’s disputed, but most thought it suicide.

  Huck Finn bore some resemblance to both Lewis and Paul Maclean, but knew himself well enough to say: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”

  I can’t stand it either.  I’ve been there before too. 

Note 1: At the movie’s end, at the last light of day while we watch a now nearly ancient Maclean cast his fly towards a cliff on the far side of a rushing river, the reading of the final lines by director/narrator Robert Redford is a coda more perfect than any other I can recall:  “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words.  And some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.” 

Note 2:  Perhaps I’m in luck.  Maclean didn’t start writing until his “biblical allotment of three score years and ten” after being prodded/encouraged by his children who had long listened to his story telling.  I remember driving a blue Ford pick up with a manual transmission talking about the Genius (aka Genii) in the bottle while one kid or another would shift when I’d push in the clutch…  And it was they who organized this space for me…

First Do No Harm

October 10, 2008

  Several weeks ago I mentioned something about financier George Soros’ back.  He employed it as sort of an economic indicator.  I’m reading his book The New Paradigm for Financial Markets.  It came out last April.  Wish I’d read it then. Or asked him about his back.  His advice in a memo written in January was to sell US stocks.  The Dow Jones Average is now some 30%/4,000 points less than at the end of that month.

  His purpose in writing the book is to put forth in detail his “theory of reflexivity” underlying his tremendous investment success.  “The theory of reflexivity seeks to illuminate the relationship between thinking and reality.

  “My starting point is that our understanding of the world in which we live is inherently imperfect because we are part of the world we seek to understand”… Understanding a situation and participating in it involves two different functions.  On the one hand people seek to understand the world in which they live.  I call this the cognitive function.  On the other, people seek to make an impact on the world and change it to their advantage. I call this the manipulative function.  When both functions are in operation at the same time they may interfere with each other.”

  Application of his theory in the financial markets leads him to: “the conclusion that both the financial authorities and market participants harbor fundamental misconceptions about the way financial markets function.”  His theory clearly is contrary to prevailing opinion that markets are inherently efficient.    

  Application of his observations to the current political scene is quite provocative in its description of the path that led to the current pickle we’re in.  “The primary purpose of political discourse is to gain power and to stay in power.  Those who fail to recognize this are unlikely to be in power.  The only way in which politicians can be persuaded to pay more respect to reality is by the electorate insisting on it… The electorate needs to be more committed to the pursuit of the truth than it is at present.”

  It’s not just Machiavelli.  The point is that once in power a ‘prince’ might manipulate realty with a certain goal in mind, but end up at the wrong end of the field in disaster.

  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  An article in the business section of the October 7 online edition of the Economist admonishes: “First do no harm.” And then asks: “Do bosses need their own Hippocratic Oath?”

  Oddly, considerations of the above brought to mind another book recently read: The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Bolton.  It is a wonderful treatise on the tremendous impact architecture and design have on our existence.  “The places we call beautiful are the work of those rare architects with the humility to interrogate themselves adequately about their desires and the tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehensions of joy into logical plans – a combination that enables them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had.”

  But the reason consideration of Soros led to M. de Bolton is the latter’s description of how few are needed to effect positive change.  “Lest we begin to despair at the thought of how much might be required to bring about a genuine evolution in taste [and whatever else], we may remind ourselves how modest were the means by which previous aesthetic revolutions were accomplished.”

  Starting with the renaissance and ending with much of the western world’s modern built environment he shows how hugely generative and positive movements have been spawned by just a few tenacious individuals.  “The Italian Renaissance was the work of only about 100 people… It took a mere 200 pages of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture to decide the appearance of much of the built environment of the twentieth century.”

  He concludes: “We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced.  We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”


October 3, 2008


  The Stranger by Christopher Van Allsburg is a book I wanted badly to buy, but did not.  Why not?  Sticker shock.  It was autographed and priced at $250.  Our well worn copy at home will have to do.

  It came out in 1986 and ranked right up there with the Polar Express for at least two of our kids and perhaps even a bit ahead with the one born in 1985.  It is, for me, the ne plus ultra of children’s picture books.  Perfect combination of colorful, compelling artwork, spare yet fruitful prose, and prescient allegory woven discreetly into the fabric of the narrative.

  To a kid it reads as the story of an enigmatic stranger knocked temporarily into amnesia by an auto on a dark country road.  By this adult, now some twenty years after publication, on its pages can be seen hopeful resolution of careless interaction of man and nature.

  “It was the time farmer Bailey liked best, when summer turned to fall”.  Driving home, thinking he’d hit a deer, Farmer Bailey finds a strangely clad itinerant lying in front of his vehicle.  Taken to the Bailey home he is doctored and fed.  This is the caption to the cover picture above:

  – Mr. Bailey lent the stranger some clean clothes.  The fellow seemed confused about buttonholes and buttons.  In the evening he joined the Baileys for dinner.  The steam that rose from the food fascinated him.  He watched Katy take a spoonful of soup and blow gently across it.  Then he did exactly the same.  Mrs. Bailey shivered.  “Brr” she said.  “There’s a draft in here tonight”. –

  The stranger seems able to communicate non-verbally with the wildlife and stays with the Baileys for a while working tirelessly in the fields.  Until, that is, he notices that the autumn hues in the distance are not shared with the still verdant deciduous trees of the Bailey farm.

  After putting back on his own clothes, off he hurries leaving fresh frost and fall colors not far behind.  In the frost on the Bailey’s window is written “see you next fall”.

  It’d be terrible if fall didn’t come.  I can’t imagine living in a place where the seasons do not change.  Whether it be the luxuriant transformation of bean fields from green to golden or maples from green to orange to red, one can hardly not be filled with wonder or reverence as witness. It’s like the slap in the face by a zen master to make sure you’re paying attention.

  It’s an amazing process.

  The green energy producing chemical chlorophyll is unstable and rapidly decomposes in sunlight.  Thus, obviously, plants must continuously synthesize it.  Come shorter days and cooler nights a corky membrane grows between stems and leaves constricting the flow of nutrients and the chlorophyll disintegrates.  Green gone.

  Other more stable compounds are left behind.  Carotene (which helped transfer light energy to the chlorophyll) absorbs blue-green and blue light thus appearing yellow.  Leaves containing it, (aspen, soybeans) will thus turn bright yellow as the chlorophyll disappears. 

  Some leaves contain anthocyanins which absorb blue, blue-green, and green light thus reflecting red.   Unlike chlorophyll and carotone this is a component of cell sap and not part of the cell membranes.  As the concentration of sugar in the sap increases the yellowing leaves turn red.  The more sugar, the brighter the red.  Maple syrup.  Forty gallons of sap = one gallon of syrup.

  Best colors come with dry sun filled days coupled with dry cool but not freezing nights. 

Autumn morning sun
Hallows the dirt and stuble
Noble shades of brown