Looking through the wrong end of a Telescope and other Analogies for Time

We look at the past  through the wrong end of a telescope, he thought one day; eventually the things we can see in there become simply too small to hurt us. (Character: Peter Clayborne) – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians Pg. 316

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series the expected lifespan for humans is extended by a “longevity treatment” to at least several hundred years if not thousands of years. Through this he is able to explore issues and limitations of the human brain for storing and retrieving memories. In one scene, Maya Toitovna is now around 150 years old  has returned to live in a city she had previously lived in 70 or more years before.

Maya found herself trapped in a déjà vu of a déjà vu, Where was she?

It wouldn’t come back to her. It wouldn’t come. A horrible sense of tip-of-the-toungeism made her dizzy, then sick, as if she would get it out by vomiting. She sat down on the steps. On the tip of the tongue, her whole life! Her whole life! She groaned aloud, and some kids throwing pebbles at gulls stared at her.

It hadn’t really been gone; just a momentary lapse in her thinking, while her attention had wandered elsewhere. To another life.

A strong memory had its own integrity, its own dangers, just as much as a weak memory did. It was only the result of thinking that the past was more interesting than the present. Which is many ways was true. But still…

Later Maya saw her daughter Jackie, who she… lets say despised, sailboard on the open oceans of Mars:

Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that even when people had lived only to seventy or eighty they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now [when they lived for at least several hundred years]. No sailboard would keep you up with that wave… – Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.

A word of caution here, Maya suffered from severe depression so don’t get drawn too deeply into her neurosis.

“T” is for Time, and for Telescope

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Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

1Q84 – Murakami’s cult masterpiece

Haruki Murakami’s epic novel 1Q84 was an instant success in Japan and soon its publishers were in a mad rush to get the work published for the english language market.

Oddly mirroring the plot line in the novel where one of main characters ghost rewrites a story, the publishers of 1Q84 were in such a hurry to get it to market that they enlisted the services of two different writers to translate the work; one for books I and II, and another for book III.

Set it Japan in 1984 the story revolves around two central characters:

  • Aomame (written with the same characters as the word for “green peas” and pronounced Ah-oh-mah-meh); a female fitness instructor and part-time assassin
  • and Tengo, an aspiring novelist and part time editor and maths lecturer

The point of view alternates each chapter with Aomame and Tengo and the reader slowly learns their connection. Murakami enjoys playing with the time period too and takes his time explaining iconic objects of the time.

1Q84 features an immaculate   conception, telekinesis, transmigrating souls and a talking crow. But the   more blatant oddness of Murakami’s plots tends to distract us from their   roots in emotions that are just as unaccountable. A virtue of his writing is   that, carried away, you rarely sense the strain. – Anthony Cummins The Telegraph UK


Knopf / Getty Images

The title 1Q84 has its roots in a few different places; it is set in 1984, there is of course George Orwell’s novel 1984, and in the story Aomame coins the term for the odd version of the world she finds herself in; it is 1984 but also no longer the same. The name of the letter Q is also the same sound in Japanese as the number nine “Kyu”. And the complexity of this too mirrors that of the storyline in many ways.

…Yes, this is a Haruki Murakami novel, where magical and dreamlike phenomena are deadpanned into existence with the same calm craft that his characters routinely employ in cooking themselves delicious-sounding Japanese meals. – Stephen Poole, The Guardian UK

Murakami has a knack for oddball twists (talking cats, raining fish) and in 1Q84 this continues with terrifying “little people” emerging from the mouths of goats and people and a moss coloured second moon hanging in the sky.

Having Tengo and his editor and co-conspirator discuss the writing and editing process delivers some classic writing advice:

“When you introduce things that readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”

and on story development:

“Once a gun appears in a story, it will be shot and someone will die”. 

1Q84 is a masterpiece but I am left a little frustrated at having to read the translated story rather than Murakami’s original Japanese work.

Q is for 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Paul Dempsey doesn’t write love songs

Paul Dempsey is the front man and singer/songwriter for the Australian rock group Something for Kate (SFK).

His most recent release is the solo album “Everything is true“, on which he played every instrument and provided all the vocals.

“Dempsey is a gifted observer of the human condition…a truly beautiful collection.” – The Daly Telegraph

Dempsey’s songwriting is superb and unique, it stands apart in an industry full of three-minute lust songs.

“The tally for genius lyrics per second is positively baffling…eleven excellent reasons to acquaint yourself with one of Australia’s finest songwriters.”Beat said of his latest solo effort

Dempsey is a veracious reader too and the breadth of his literary consumption appears to feed his songwriting; everything from literary classics, 1960’s Sci-Fi from Philip K Dick, to A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines  by Janna Levin, and The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

“For me…a half a dozen words, the rights words, arranged a certain way…when you get one line that manages to posses some sort of insight into an aspect of your life is so satifying.” PD on Face The Music Songwriting Segment with Paul Dempsey presented by The Push

When asked once about the breadth of subjects in his songs he said that he actively avoids writing love songs, that the genre has been done to death so why put just another love song out there. There are so many more interesting things to write about.

once in a lifetime she says

the waking life stitched together in your head

well, what if it’s only worth

the bundle of nerves it’s written on?

and i don’t need these arms anymore

i don’t need this heart now, to love

i don’t need this skin and bones at all

Ramona was a waitress

Dempsey is currently in the studio recording Something For Kate’s next album, expected to be released later this year.

Paul Dempsey, Stephanie Ashworth, and Clint Hyndman – Something For Kate

“P” is for Paul Dempsey

No-Form, No thought, No Mind

When we study a new art form we are given forms of movement and told to repeat them endlessly. Our teachers are vigilant and correct our form when we stray but a hair’s breadth.

In Search of Simplicity

As we advance we are given ever more complicated forms to practice, yet we see our teachers break their own rules, seeming to do exactly what we are berated for.

I see shades of Form and No-Form argument in the following passage from Takuan Soho.

The mind that becomes fixed and stops in one place does not function freely. Similarly, the wheels of a cart go around because they are not held rigidly in place. If they were to stick tight, they would not go around. The mind is also something that does not function if it becomes attached to a single situation. – Takuan Soho

One must know the correct form intimately, from the subtle angle of a finger to the large movements of the torso, before we can perceive where to lesson our grip on that form.

You cannot throw the pieces of a cart in a pile and expect to use it as a cart. It must follow the form…but not too rigidly or it becomes a model of a cart—not the real thing itself.

It is the same when we practice any art form, we copy the masters endlessly, searching for those subtitles that belay their importance, hidden many times by large flourishing strokes of the brush or pen.

In the martial arts the form alone is not effective in actual combat.

When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style. – Bruce Lee

In a passage from his novel “Musashi“, Eiji Yoshikawa wrote:

Yoshino told Musashi he was rigid and would lose any battle in that state. She cut open her lute to show him how it could produce such varying sounds with only four strings.

It had a central wooden piece that was held in place but not firmly.

“If the cross piece were as taut and unbending as you are, one stroke of the pick would break a string, perhaps even the sounding  board itself.”


Takuan Soho’s writing is infused with wit and multiple levels of meaning. In the following passage he discusses the ‘Mind of No-Mind’ motif.

The mind that thinks about removing what is within it will by the very act be occupied. If one will not think about it, the mind will remove these thoughts by itself and of itself become No-Mind.

If one always approaches the mind in this way, at a later date it will suddenly come to this condition by itself. If one tries to achieve this suddenly, it will never get there.

An old poem says:

To think, “I will not think”—
This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.
Simply do not think
About not thinking at all.

You have got to love that!

“N” is for No-Form, No-Thought, No-Mind

Learning…the teacher must learn the most

Today’s post is a cacophony of snip-its and quotes about learning and teaching.

From “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is always the teacher who must learn the most, Bistami thought, or else nothing real has happened in the exchange.  Pg. 130

The word of God came down to man as rain to soil, and the result was mud, not clear water. (Bistami) Pg. 128

US edition coverFrom “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa

At times like this, the world, which he once thought so full of stupid people, seemed frighteningly large. Pg. 472

After this experience, he realised how premature his judgement had been and how importent and useful randomly acquired bits of knowledge could subsequently be.Pg. 362

– I must have subconsciously picked this lesson up from a previous reading, or another source, as it is one of the items of advice I included in a conference presentation in 2002: “Listen to everything, try and understand everything, see everything. Time is only wasted if you do not listen. One day this knowledge will be useful in ways you do not expect.”

From “The Lone Samurai – the life of Myamoto Musashi” by William Scott Wilson

…the principles of swordsmanship must be understood as though the student himself had discovered them. This was a major departure from other sword styles of Musashi’s time.

From “The Martians” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Imbition is the tendency of granular rock to imbibe a fluid under the force of capillary attraction, in the absence of any pressure. Sax became convinced that this was a quality of mind as well. He would say of someone, “She has great imbition.” and people would say “Ambition?” and he would reply, “No imbition.” And because of his stroke people would assume he was just having speech trouble again. Pg. 337

From Quotes:

If you’re more relaxed I think your brain functions more effectively. Tibetans, generally speaking, are quite jovial. In my family we were always laughing. – Dalai Lama

Minds are like parachutes; they work best when open. – Lord Thomas Dewar

You must sit in a chair for a very long time, with your mouth open, before roast duck flies in. Chinese Proverb

If you are standing on the shoulders of giants, modesty is not only pointless, it is disrespectful.

Don’t limit a child to your own learning for they were born in another time. – Rabbinical saying

Teching in a martial art is a great place to learn the art of teaching (and learning), “there is nowhere to hide on the mat”, but the princples can be applied to any situation be it a business meeting, talking with your children, or writing a story/magizine article.

I have found that when most people teach or talk it is a one directional act. People immediately put up walls in their minds, even if they know the information is something they need to understand; it is primeval. You have to set up the environment so that they decide to draw the information in, then as a teacher you don’t force it on to them or spoon feed them, you just put the knowledge out there to be imbibed by their now open minds.

“L” is for Learning

What is Immovable Wisdom?

As with many terms used in Zen and the martial arts, Immovable wisdom is often misinterpreted to have a mind that does not move, when it is almost the exact opposite; it does not stop, or is not stopped. This state is sometimes described in Japanese as Fudoshin, Immovable Mind, and many physical tests for it have been developed for Aikido (and other disciplines) examinations.

Fudoshin - Wallpapers on the web

Early in their study students will misinterpret this “test” and will become hard like wood or stone…and fail. Instead they must learn not to allow their mind to be moved, or caught, by the examiner. The mind must become like still water; not “caught” by the hook as it passes through.

…the mind that does not stop at all is called Immovable Wisdom. – Takuan Soho

Takuan Soho, in a letter to the Samurai Yagyū Munenori, wrote of  “Immovable Wisdom” and how a person near enlightenment was capable of controlling a thousand arms, their mind not stopping at any particular one. He goes on to say that …one who understands this is no different from the Kannon with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.

…the ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its 1000 arms. The man of half-baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have 1000 eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if one understands a little better, they will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man, or the slander of the other, and they will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing manifests its principle well.

he goes on…

All religions are like this… The ordinary man thinks only on the surface, the man who attacks… is even worse. This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are settled in the one conclusion.

“I” is for Immovable Wisdom