Thursday, November 28, 2013


Hopis are very conscious of the (non-monetary) value of their land, and have persistently refused to accept compensation for losses of parts of it. A 1970s Indian Claims Commission award of $5 million (that has grown with interest to near $50 million today), for the illegal taking of Hopi lands in the 19th century, has never been accepted, and it continues to sit in a bank even while many Hopis live below the poverty line. ‘Never sell your land’ is a key lesson Hopis point to as handed down from their elders. Even though these particular lands have long been formally outside Hopi control, some Hopis believe that if they accept the money, they will have sold their birthright, and the sentient land of their ancestors will never again look favourably upon them. Money, Hopis say, can never be relied on in the long run, while the land will always be there to support us.
-- from The Fire Burns Yet by Peter Whiteley

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Storybook plutocracy

He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses—always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking—chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk—and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.
from The Great Unwinding by George Packer, reviewed by Thomas Frank, who says “what Packer calls 'the unwinding' was not an act of nature; it was a work of ideology.”

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The wrong kind of unreadability

International Art English
Alix Rule, a sociologist, and David Levine, an artist, [created] a website called e-flux where all of the art galleries from round the world put their press releases through it. They put it through a language analyser and they came up with a few observations about what they called international art English. “International art English rebukes ordinary English for its lack of nouns. Visual becomes visuality. Global becomes globality. Potential becomes potentiality. And experience of course becomes experienceability.” Now they describe the kind of metaphysical seasickness you get from reading this sort of text, or it sounds all a bit like inexpertly translated French.
From Democracy Has Bad Taste -- Reith Lecture by Grayson Perry


Online in The Guardian today: a review of Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings. Here are some notes and links, and my original ending.
Astronomers have mapped the clouds on a planet 1,000 light years away. See here.

Some indications of what is going on in Gregory Laughlin's head can be found here and here.

Since the book was published Sara Seager has received a MacArthur award.

A question facing all of us...Like many who reflect on the prospects for life in the universe, Billings turns back towards Earth with a heightened sense of how marvelous life on this planet is, and how worthy of attention and care.  Perhaps this turn needs a name if it doesn't already have one.  It is not the opposite of a Copernican turn (in which, discovering the Earth to be just a small planet orbiting a star rather than the centre of the universe we "downgrade" its importance) but a necessary transformation or extension of it.

David Grinspoon writes that we need to search for planetary intelligence, not intelligent life.

an interview last year available here.
See also this Barely Imagined Beings post from earlier in the year.
David Deutsch stresses that...our ignorance is still infinite. Deutsch also suggests that this means there will never be an end of new frontiers. Paul Gilster has written No scientific era has has succeeded in imagining its successor...We have no analogues in our experience for what advanced [interstellar] cultures might create.
My review originally ended like this:
...Mr Palomar returns from his reverie to the normal run of life only to find that he is as vulnerable to muddle, hesitation, blunders and anguish as ever before. Better, and maybe more attainable than it seems, is the state Thoreau experienced when he wrote “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is...I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”

A poet whose name translates from Chinese as Summit-Gate didn't even need words. Taking refuge from the madness and grief of her times in a small house on windy ridge line, she would collect dry leaves every autumn, selecting them for their delightful and evocative shapes, and store them in special boxes on bookshelves in her library. After she had filled all the shelves, Summit-Gate would wait for the first snowfall and then release the leaves, one at a time, to tumble, skid and scratch across the snow before soaring into emptiness.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Fantastical or monstrous beings

Douglas Heaven has an interesting article on a phenomenon observed by the psychologist Giovanni Caputo, in which staring fixedly at a reflection of one's own face in a darkened room gives rise to weird and disturbing distortions and spectres.
"Usually, after about 1 minute of mirror-gazing, the eyes start to move or shine, the mouth opens, or the nose becomes very large," [Caputo] says. "If you continue to gaze there are very big changes, until completely new faces appear." And it's not just human faces that are seen – some report seeing animals and others fantastical or monstrous beings. 
Perhaps, as the brain struggles to make sense of what it is seeing in the dim light, it pulls scraps from our memory to make up for our poor perception – perhaps patching together a “photo fit” of different features so that it begins to look like another person.

I'm reminded of something referred to here: an experience Jorge Luis Borges describes in a lecture  in 1977 -- recurring nightmares which, like much of his fictional output, feature labyrinths and mirrors. In the most terrible of all, he sees himself reflected in a mirror but the reflection is wearing a mask such as he had feared greatly in childhood. “I am afraid to pull the mask off, afraid to see my real face, which I imagine to be hideous. There may be leprosy or evil or something more terrible than anything I am capable of imagining.”

A shadowed lesson of the whole world

This, from Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne, is printed at the front of the Schirmer's Library edition of The Goldberg Variations:
There is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God.