Tuesday 19 January 2021

Breaking through (1940)


In an unpublished manuscript essay of 1940, called The Philosophy of Breaking Through, the American ecologist Ed Ricketts (1897 - 1948) tried to address the experience that humans occasionally have of moments of transcendental insight, many of which lead to the creation of new things. Ricketts gave many different examples, but he considered the pattern he had identified as a human universal, which was often only missed due to obstacles we have in our own perceptions: obstacles created by the way we create routines to deal with life.  The explicit articulation of this theme by the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers (1887 –1962), was of particular significance to Ricketts:    

No doubt some few wise people know this merely through living. But many of us can achieve at least a clearer and more easily conveyed conscious expression of it through the spiritual motifs underlying literature, especially in poetry. . .

But in some of Jeffers’ poems, the thing is stated clearly, with full conscious recognition, and with that exact economy of words which we associate with scientific statements: ‘Humanity is the mold to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire, . . . The atom to be split.’

It was this phrase ‘…the crust to break through’, taken from Jeffers’ allegorical narrative in free verse, Roan Stallion, that Ricketts’ used to describe an experience that he found otherwise difficult to put into words. 

Ricketts’ essay describes a common pattern for these moments of breaking through. Often, there is a tension between what is, and what might be so, or between two opposing views: ‘The struggle is between opposing forces, each honest in its own right and without evasion but limited in scope and vision’. It was, Ricketts argued, through the resolution of these tensions, that a statistically rare break through, or epiphany happens. And at that point in time there is clarity of insight that may lead to artistic creation, a discovery, or an invention.

Little wonder, then, that at the very moment that an individual tries out something really new, they go beyond what their social group already knows. They break through. And when an individual reaches beyond what is already known, they do not ignore or negate what they have inherited and learned, they build on it.

In response to questions in 2016 about the awarding of a Nobel prize to Bob Dylan, the American music critic Greil Marcus has the following to say about Dylan's song “Like a Rolling Stone”:

I can’t listen to that song without feeling as if I’m hearing it for the first time. Every note in that song, every word, every inflection is a breakthrough. There is an energy that has come to bear on all the people in that room, all the people playing that song in that moment, that is taking them past themselves, taking them somewhere they’ve never been, somewhere they’ve never played, they’ve never sung with that kind of synchronicity. Every person playing off every other, and every person stepping into a realm where he’s never been before in terms of passion, expressiveness, intensity. Taking a form and pushing it to its absolute limit and pushing yourself past your limits. That’s what you hear over those six minutes.

Let’s put it this way: a song like that, a work of art like that, comes to no artist more than once. But it doesn’t necessarily come in anyone’s lifetime. We are lucky we are alive when that song can be played.

From HERE.

Thursday 14 January 2021

A Prodigy Who Cracked Open the Cosmos (2021)


A great interview (HERE) with the Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek - on his work in theoretical physics over the past 50 years.

Have you had to put these projects on hold because of the pandemic?


Oh, no. No! They’ve been fostered because of it. I’m not schlepping around and going to conferences and traveling. I mean, I’m eating better. I’ve lost 15 pounds, taken up juggling, doing exercise. It’s given me time to do creative thinking. In a way I’ve been going back to school, as if I were a graduate student. I want to learn more about machine learning. I’m going to be 70 in May, but I feel younger now than I’ve felt for many years.


Wednesday 13 January 2021

... that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice... (1981)


At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of the river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

One Hundred Years of Solitude.

HERE is a wonderful interview with Gabriel García Márquez in The Paris Review from 1981.



Monday 11 January 2021

The car, the radio, the night (2007)


I had forgotten just how good this was. HERE is an article from 2007 by Laura Barton, about her  rock'n'roll pilgrimage to Boston's Route 128 - the site and subject of Jonathan Richman's legendary song Roadrunner

Roadrunner is one of the most magical songs in existence. It is a song about what it means to be young, and behind the wheel of an automobile, with the radio on and the night and the highway stretched out before you. It is a paean to the modern world, to the urban landscape, to the Plymouth Roadrunner car, to roadside restaurants, neon lights, suburbia, the highway, the darkness, pine trees and supermarkets. As Greil Marcus put it in his book Lipstick Traces: "Roadrunner was the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest."

Saturday 9 January 2021

Now It Can Be Told (2021)


A superb piece in the New York Times (HERE) on how Neil Sheehan got hold of US Government papers on the Vietnam war, and published them as a front page story in 1971. 

He also revealed that he had defied the explicit instructions of his confidential source, whom others later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had been a contributor to the secret history while working for the Rand Corporation. In 1969, Mr. Ellsberg had illicitly copied the entire report, hoping that making it public would hasten an end to a war he had come passionately to oppose.

Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to The Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to The Times.

Over the next two months, he strung Mr. Ellsberg along. He told him that his editors were deliberating about how best to present the material, and he professed to have been sidetracked by other assignments. In fact, he was holed up in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan with the documents and a rapidly expanding team of Times editors and reporters working feverishly toward publication.

This reads like a spy story. 

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Nōgaku zue (1897)


By the Japanese artist Kōgyo Tsukioka (1869 – 1927) from HERE.

Monday 4 January 2021

Algorithms come with serious side effects (2020)


A good essay HERE by John Naughton in The Observer on the rise of unregulated machine learning algorithms. It ends with a thought experiment:

Imagine what it would be like if we gave the pharmaceutical industry the leeway that we currently grant to tech companies. Any smart biochemist working for, say, AstraZeneca, could come up with a strikingly interesting new molecule for, say, curing Alzheimer’s. She would then run it past her boss, present the dramatic results of preliminary experiments to a lab seminar after which the company would put it on the market. You only have to think of the Thalidomide scandal to realise why we don’t allow that kind of thing. Yet it is exactly what the tech companies are able to do with algorithms that turn out to have serious downsides for society.

Dynamicland (2018)


Here is a very cool project called Dynamicland, that is trying to change the way that humans collaborate with computers, physical artefacts and each other. Their mission is to, "...incubate a humane dynamic medium whose full power is accessible to all people". 

  • We are a non-profit long-term research group in the spirit of Doug Engelbart and Xerox PARC. 
  • We are inventing a new computational medium where people work together with real objects in the real world, not alone with virtual objects on screens. 
  • We are building a community workspace in the heart of Oakland, CA. The entire building is the computer. 

Sunday 3 January 2021

Will you be Seated? (1935)


From Paul Klee Notebooks Vol. 1 - The Thinking Eye. 

Beyond the Narrative Arc (2019)


A superb essay by Jane Alison in The Paris Review (HERE), on the range of different structures that are inspired by natural forms, and are useful for both fiction and non-fiction:  meander, spiral, radial, fractal, cell.



Friday 1 January 2021

A Grammar of Typography: Classical Design in the Digital Age (2020)


I just got a copy of A Grammar of Typography: Classical Design in the Digital Age by Mark Argetsinger. It is a big book: 8 1/2 x 12 inches, 530 pages. Lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed and made.    

What a way to start another year of lockdowns. 

On the Power of Sharing (2021)

This Editorial in The Guardian (HERE) is about the scientific generosity of Prof. Zhang Yongzhen, who works for the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre. Prof Zhang was the first person to obtain a whole genome sequence of Sars-CoV-2 on 5th January 2020. He immediately began sharing his work and within days the Jenner Institute, Moderna, and BioNTech had all designed vaccines.

I believe we have a moral obligation to share good ideas. It is how we have learnt ourselves - all human culture is built on sharing. We just need to pass things on.

Annie Dillard in The Writing Life has this to say about open and enthusiastic sharing. 

"... the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes".