Musings On Artificial Intelligence [AI]

‘The AI revolution will occur more quickly than most humans expect. Unless we develop new concepts to explain, interpret, and organize its consequent transformations, we will be unprepared to navigate it or its implications.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. Henry A.Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher. John Murray Publishers. London. 2021.

‘A machine intelligence would benefit from flawless memory, even of events that occurred deep in the past, and would have the ability to calculate and to sift and search through enormous troves of data at fantastic speed. It would also be able to directly connect to the internet or to other networks and tap into virtually limitless resources; it would effortlessly talk to other machines, even as it mastered conversation with us. In other words, human level AI, from its very inception, would in a great many ways be superior to us.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything. Martin Ford. Basic Books. London. 2021.

‘AI is the ultimate intangible asset, because it takes on the qualities of a perpetual motion machine—the algorithms give you more and more value without you having to do very much. The cycle looks like this: You feed data into an AI and it becomes more effective—tailoring a product to your needs, perhaps recommending news stories you want to read or songs you want to listen to. This improved service becomes more desirable, and so more of us use it. As more of us use it, we generate more data about our tastes and preferences. That data can then be fed into the AI, and the product improves.’

The Exponential Age. Azeem Azhar. Diversion Books. 2021.

‘…what has always been the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence: a machine that can communicate, reason and conceive new ideas at the level of a human being or beyond. Researchers often refer to this as “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI. Nothing close to AGI currently exists in the real world, but there are many examples from science fiction..One could make a strong argument that the development of general machine intelligence with superhuman capability would be the most consequential innovation in the history of humanity…’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘To chart the frontiers of contemporary knowledge, we may task AI to probe realms we cannot enter; it may return with patterns we do not fully grasp…We may find ourselves one step closer to the concept of our knowledge, less limited by the structure of our minds and the patterns of conventional human though. Not only will we have to redefine our roles as something other than the sole knower of reality, we will also have to redefine the very reality we thought we were exploring.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Most AI researchers recognize that significant breakthroughs will be required in order to achieve something close to human-level artificial intelligence, but there is no broad agreement on precisely what challenges are most important, or which ones should be attacked first. Yann LeCun often uses an analogy of navigating a mountain range. Only after you climb the first peak will you be able to see the obstacles that lie behind it.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Individuals and societies that enlist AI as a partner to amplify skills or pursue ideas may be capable of feats—scientific, medical, military, political, and social—that eclipse those of preceding periods. Yet once machines approximating human intelligence are regarded as key to producing better and faster results, reason alone may come to seem archaic.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Until now, humans alone developed their understanding of reality, a capacity that defined our place in the world and relationship to it. From this, we elaborated our philosophies, designed our governments and military strategies, and developed our moral precepts. Now AI has revealed that reality may be known in different ways, perhaps in more complex ways, than what has been understood by humans alone. At times, it’s acheivements may be as striking and disorienting as those of the most influential thinkers in their heydays—producing bolts of insight and challenges to established concepts, all of which demand a reckoning.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘One important approach is to look directly to the inner workings of the human brain for inspiration. These researchers believe that artificial intelligence should be directly informed by neuroscience.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘We must recognize that AI’s achievements, within its defined parameters, sometimes rank beside or even surpass those that human resources enable. We may comfort ourselves by repeating that AI is artificial, that it has not or cannot match our conscious experience of reality. But when we encounter some of AI’s achievements—logical feats, technical breakthroughs, strategic insights, and sophisticated management of large, complex systems— it is evident that we are in the presence of another experience of reality by another sophisticated entity.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Students studying statistics are often reminded that “correlation does not equal causation.” For artificial intelligence, and especially deep learning systems, understanding ends at correlation…[Judith] Pearl…likes to point out that while any human understands intuitively that the sunrise causes a rooster to crow, rather than vice versa, the most powerful deep neural network would likely to fail to achieve a similar insight. Causation cannot be derived simply by analyzing data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Pre AI algorithms were good at delivering “addictive” content to humans. AI is excellent at it. As deep reading and analysis contracts, so, too, do the traditional rewards for undertaking these processes. As the cost of opting out of the digital domain increases, it’s ability to affect human thought—to convince, to steer, to divert—grows. As a consequence, the individual human’s role in reviewing, testing, and making sense of information diminishes. In its place, AI’s role expands.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Yet in the worlds of media, politics, discourse and entertainment, AI will reshape information to conform to our preferences—potentially confirming and deepening biases and, in so doing, narrowing access to and agreement upon an objective truth. In the age of AI, then, human reason will find itself both augmented and diminished.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘…AI may operate as we expect but generate results that we do not foresee. With those results, it may carry humanity to places it’s creators did not anticipate.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. P. 216

‘The truth is that no one really has any idea exactly how the human brain achieves it’s unparalleled competence at autonomously learning from unstructured data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘The ability to learn information in one domain and then successfully leverage it on other domains is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence and is essential to creativity and innovation. If more general machine intelligence is to be genuinely useful…it will need to be able to apply what it learns, and any insights it develops, to entirely new challenges.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Social media companies do not run news feeds to promote extreme and violent polarization. But is is self-evident that these services have not resulted in the maximization of enlightened discourse.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 2 – The Narrow Gate

(Part 1 of this series is here.)

Decades ago, I worked a plush job in Dubai before that city transformed into a sprawling metropolis. At that happy time, before the city exanded in size and population and popularity, we could casually run into friends at Thatcher’s pub or Fibber Magee’s bar or Magrudy’s bookstore in Jumeirah. The atmosphere was laden with optimism; the city retained a socially optimistic vibe.

Bungee jumping into Dubai Creek

One hot weekend on the edge of an outdoor swimming pool at our El Manzel apartment complex in the Al Karama district off Sheikh Zayed highway, I dangled toes in cool turquoise water—reading a Time magazine. An article included a photograph of a smiling British financier who had moved to France, penned a book about life in the countryside and transformed to a bestselling author. This was Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. The article riveted me, for this is what I wanted! I tore the piece out and kept it. Successful author. Rural France. Sunshine. Wine.

Bingo.

Golfing with South African co-worker Martin in Dubai

Years rolled on and I worked assignments in Angola, Panama, Guatemala, Thailand and Pakistan and spent years in California: Malibu and Laguna Beach. I eventually moved to France. The relocation was not premeditated, but blossomed from that seed of desire planted poolside in the Emirates decades earlier. I moved not to a rolling, bucolic and lavender scented Provencal village, but instead to flatlands surrounding the Gironde estuary— hectares of grass and rough soil and stout old vines ringed around Bordeaux city. I settled in a town too large to embrace any charming intimacy of Pernod swigging denizens recognized by gossiping neighbors, yet too small to shiver with opulent spires of gothic architecture within a grand city. This venue was not as expected.

Dinner with view of Gironde Estuary

Looking back, however, the move went well. Since I first read about Mayle’s bestselling book, Provence had transformed to a Francophone version of Orange County in southern California, with too many cars, too little parking, cringeworthy property prices and a saturation of non-French residents flush with cash, though deficient in linguistic proficiency.

The ancient citadelle in Blaye

The roots of my settlement in Bordeaux hinged on family, history and—mais oui—women.

My childhood had a dose of European influence. After my parents sold their Chicago business, they relocated family to rural Ireland in a move that was somewhat romantic, but displaced in time. This was when poverty was rife and teachers dressed in religious black robes and whacked grimacing student across palms with their hand whittled wooden canes within dim-lit classrooms. This all brutally contrasted to a Chicago north shore suburban school with huge picture windows, ample lego sets and bright lights.

With siblings in Ireland (I’m on left)

Yet, away from those gray, dull, sodden prefabricated classrooms and the smelly concrete toilet block, our home in the village of Delgany stayed comfortable. The parents renovated a rectory originally constructed in 1725. The garden included a running brook and orchard and a vegetable garden. My mother—when not tromping around in Wellington boots planting potatoes or picking strawberries—devoured historical novels by Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt, as well as history books. She then recounted, over dinners of roast beef and fat spuds and steaming green beans, the names and birth years of the wives of Henry the VIII of England, or tales of intrigue from the Tower of London. Sometimes she mentioned Eleanor of Aquitaine within the French region that now includes Bordeaux. Eleanor. Aquitaine. These words smacked of alliteration and intrigue.

Rural Bordeaux countryside

About that time a sister hitchhiked to Bordeaux with an American ally who lugged his guitar case and who—troubadour-like—lit up public parks or hostel hallways when strumming and crooning tunes from Cat Stevens or Buffalo Springfield. Gendarmes once stopped and searched their framed backpacks for drugs, a routine scenario during this post-Woodstock era of bell bottom jeans and dangling ponytails.

During her final years, my mother joined a wine club in the U.S. She received boxes with mixed varieties, poured us dinner glasses during visits, and ignited my eventual interest in international vintages. So also did an ex-British girlfriend and her mother, who sent a gift box of wine while I lived and studied in Newcastle-On-Tyne in the UK. Beer swilling classmates were as intrigued as I that wine was produced in Chile. Finally, a Californian girlfriend gave me a gift—a book about wine. She penned on the inner cover the instruction that I was to learn about wine, then teach her—someday.

Laguna Beach, California

These intersecting interests in France, writing and wine eventually led me to visit the fabled region of Aquitaine, where Bordeaux city and countryside sit.

That brief visit was made over a decade ago while I was studying business in the UK. I flew into Bordeaux and stayed at a bed and breakfast on Rue Saint Genes. That evening I walked to a nearby bar named Nieuw Amsterdam on Cours Aristide Briand, owned by two Dutch brothers. Seated at a bar in the shape of U, I drank beer, and past midnight people began dancing on tables. Trust me—I took photos.

Dancing on tables

Past midnight the front door opened and a whistle blew—a  police raid! How wonderful. A lovely woman seated close at the bar recognized peril for an innocent visiting American. She stubbed out her cigarette, swigged down a beer and summoned me with a waving index finger. I happily followed. We scooted out a back door with her friends, slipped into a van, and drove to her apartment where the party continued until past 3.00 am. Eventually someone walked me to a tram stop and pointed the way back to the bed and breakfast.

My rescuer

I thought: I like this place.

The following day I departed for another pre-booked bed and breakfast. It was in the countryside outside the city. I drove a rented Peugeot 200 south to Sauternes, east to Saint-Émilion and Libourne, and finally north to a town named Blaye (pronounced blye; rhymes with sigh). I arrived late, well after dinner time. The South African owner invited me to an upstairs kitchen inside an old villa on Rue Saint Simon. We sat. He and his sometimes business partner opened a bottle of Bordeaux wine—perhaps Confiance or Cantinot or Le Con. We talked. Eventually, though late, he opened a second bottle. That second bottle was key. I began enjoying hospitality within this little known town.

Libourne

Within years I moved to Blaye and (with the aid of others) purchased wine, cellar, apartment and stake in a winery. I soon learned about a fleet of chromatic, erratic and less than static characters: a delightfully meandering river of personalities.

In Blaye the ancient citadelle fortress was at that time overgrown and neglected (since then greatly improved). For a sizable 17th century complex, its two entrance gates appeared relatively narrow—wide enough today for passage of a single vehicle. Likewise, the entrance door to the building in which I purchased an apartment also included a tall, narrow door.

Entrance to the Citadelle

Not being religious (even after years of caning from Irish teachers in dank and gloomy County Wicklow classrooms) I was later surprised to encounter—somewhere—an apt verse of scripture from Matthew 7:13.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

It was here, not within any sunnier but tourist trampled acres of France, that I found my own narrow gate. Through this, eventually, flowed time, wine, intrigue and a river of stories—which I shall now begin to share.

Allies in Blaye and Bordeaux

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux

Bordeaux—place or beverage—is a word associated with wine, wealth and a smidgen of bawdy history, while nuclear relates to atomic particles smashed together to generate light and power, or even to snuff out planetary life. Nuclear also refers to tight, bright family structures that sometimes help homo sapiens sail against the inclement winds of anarchy and possible extinction.

Within Bordeaux, the word ‘nuclear’ means both.

The word Bordeaux means, basically, waterside. It is both city and region, and the western portion is a sunny segment of southwest France that sticks into the Atlantic like a thumb, and is known as the Médoc. It is flat as a crêpe and riddled with rounded stones—enough to scare off even potato farmers. Counterintuitively, grapevines love these conditions because vine roots thrive on adversity.

This ‘left bank’ of Bordeaux includes hundreds of wine estates, or châteaux. A few are associated with prodigious wealth. This is a place where individuals named Arnault, Castel, Wertheimer and Rothschild—collectively worth some $100 billion—visit their own well-trimmed and architecturally eloquent wine estates.

But consider this glaring and seldom mentioned paradox.

Take a renowned wine estate, such as Château Lafite Rothschild. This is classified as one of the top five wine châteaux in Bordeaux with respect to quality, according to a dusty, perhaps dubious old classification system penned with quill and ink in 1855 (a century before steel fermenting tanks were even invented). As a crow flies, the Lafite property sits just 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) distant from the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. That’s the local nuclear power plant. Only a half mile further away from these buzzing electrons sits Château Mouton Rothschild, another ‘top five’ producer, owned by a separate branch of that same family.

In summary—bundles of wealth, cellars stuffed with gorgeous vintages, and streamlined, green opulent estates all exist in happy proximity—the distance walked during a round of golf—to a facility that generates potentially bone gnawing toxic materials with a half-life of 700 million years.

Some years ago I wrote the following in a blog post:

‘The Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais is located on a plain east of the estuary. This assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy. It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.’

The word ‘nuclear’ also refers to a basic social unit: the family.

Bordeaux includes strong family ties and complicated inheritance procedures. This sometimes-sun-drenched region was home, close to a thousand years ago, to wandering minstrel troubadours who traipsed its soils and sang love poems to women they fancied. These men regarded women not as chattel but as bright spirits to court and woo and shower with affection in order to win not their subservience, but love. Romance was sacred, and families critical. After beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited vast swathes of this territory in the 12th century, she enhanced her man-magnet status and became—through marriage—first queen of France, then queen of England.

A wise ruler, adventurer, business woman and mother—Eleanor was so powerful that her husband feared she might influence their sons against him, and so imprisoned her for years in Winchester, England. Fortunately, she outlived the bastard, and walked away from her castle arrest.

Bordeaux, nowadays, has this sort of a Ring of Fire paradoxical beauty—gorgeous, although perennially threatened by some volcanic explosion (in this case, a Chernobyl sized sizzling meltdown). Although segments of the populace can be at times stiff, traditional and abhorrent of any mangled use of their delicate French language, they are also—generally, and generously—non-judgmental folk who will not tizzy your head with obsequious gossip or vine country innuendo. They rarely pry and let others—local or foreigner—get on with life unhindered and without prejudice. One magic of Bordeaux is the ease it provides for staying anonymous.

Within a two-minute walk from my small, silent apartment there is a fruit story, fromagerie (selling cheese), café, wine bar, winery, boulangerie (bakery), guest house, park, restaurants, lingerie store, hairstylist, ferry boat, and PMU—where you can bet cash on horse races. A few minutes more walking and there is a massive citadel—some 40 acres (16 hectares) in area, which includes ample crenelated walls, a dry moat, tunnels, gardens, stores, restaurants and grand elevated views of the snaking Gironde estuary, the distant Médoc and—mais oui!—our beloved nuclear plant.

One local high school is named Jaufre Rudel—after a 12th century Prince of Blaye, troubadour and crusader who, legend has it, found his way to Libya after hearing tales of how gorgeous the local princess appeared (into whose arms—apparently, fantastically and no doubt apocryphally—he then died in raptured bliss).

During coming weeks I’ll share stories about living in rural Bordeaux, about a town located less than an hour’s drive from the beautiful, enticing city of that same name. This town named Blaye (pronounced Blye, or Bligh or Blie) is located across estuary waters from most of the great, grand châteaux and to the south of the nuclear power plant. It is surrounded by vineyards.

Stay tuned, and thanks for tuning in!

If you want to read my blog on wine, food and travel – Vino Voices – click here.

And you might want to read my 50 Rules for Life….

 

Mr. Jones And The Pigs

Part I:

Mr. Jones And The Pigs

A 2019 movie named Mr. Jones tells a story (based on fact) of a Welsh journalist who traveled to the Soviet Union in the year 1933, while Stalin was in power. He wanted to see whether the revolution was as promising as rumored. He made an excursion to the Ukraine, which turned harrowing.

After Mr. Jones the journalist discovered the plight of those living in the countryside, he was coerced not to reveal his findings. Even though he later did so, he was still not believed.

He then told the story to the author George Orwell, who penned an allegorical book titled Animal Farm.

Watching this movie turned serendipitous. Before it began, I had no idea what it was about. Yet only weeks ago, when lockdown ended, I had traveled to the city of Bordeaux to purchase a few English language books from the bookstore named Mollat. One of these books was Animal Farm (written in 1943 and 1944). I had read this before, when 13 years old. At that time, the story inflamed me by revealing the hypocritical actions of many who strive for—and attain—power.

After watching the movie, I picked up this recently purchased book and read it again.

Both the movie and book are timely, considering trends taking place in several parts of the world.

Many people are promising that—if they get into positions of power—they will help deliver some ‘new world order’ with promises of plenty for all from those who govern.

Much of this sounds like what was promised—but never delivered—to the animals at Manor Farm in Orwell’s book.

It would be wise to read (or re-read) Animal Farm.

Below are 10 quotes from the book—one taken from each chapter of Animal Farm.

” ‘Almost overnight, we could become rich and free. What we must then do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race. That is my message to you, comrades. Rebellion!’ ”

[Spoken by the boar named Major]

“They explained that by their studies of the past three months the pigs had succeeded in reducing the principles of Animalism to seven commandments….they would form an unalterable law by which all the animals on Animal Farm must live for ever after.”

” ‘Comrades!’ he cried. ‘You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples…Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health.’ ”

[Spoken by the pig named Squealer.]

“Every day Snowball and Napoleon sent out flights of pigeons whose instructions were to mingle with the animals on neighboring farms, tell them the story of the Rebellion…”

” ‘Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?’ ”

[Spoken by the pig named Squealer.]

“It was about this time that the pigs suddenly moved into the farmhouse and took up their residence there. Again the animals seemed to remember that a resolution against this had been passed in the early days, and again Squealer was able to convince them that this was not the case.”

“For days at a time the animals had nothing to eat but chaff and mangrels. Starvation seemed to stare them in the face. It was vitally necessary to conceal this fact from the outside world.”

“Napoleon was now never spoken of simply as ‘Napoleon.’ He was always referred to in formal style as ‘our Leader, Comrade Napoleon,’ and the pigs liked to invent for him such titles as Father of All Animals, Terror of Mankind, Protector  of the Sheepfold, Duckling’s Friend, and the like.”

“Once again all rations were reduced except those of the pigs and the dogs. A too-rigid equality in rations, Squealer explained, would have been contrary to the principles of Animalism.”

‘There was some hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening…The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Part II:

Three Minute Overview

A Synopsis of Using ‘Visual Magic’ To Implement Projects and Alter Outcomes.

Is Artificial Intelligence Fomenting Social Unrest?

First, I published a book last year titled: Simple Rules of Life—160 Original Life Insights with Photographs. If you are interested—it is here. If you have subscribed to Roundwood Press in the past year, send me an email and I’ll send you a free copy.

Sample insights  (or lessons about life) include the following:

  • Being perennially busy is not inherently better than otherwise.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of.
  • Constantly focusing on saving money can waste your time, and your money.

  • Actual conspiracies are far rarer than those who constantly dwell on them.
  • All work and no play is actually inefficient in the grander scheme of life.
  • Beware merchants of illusion, though respect masters of illusion.

  • It is amazing how many people put tremendous efforts into providing others with the illusion that they are somehow of importance.
  • A quiet and private rapport can be grander and more satisfying and enriching than flashing some trophy relationship.
  • When someone else snarls, it’s probably not your fault. You just happen to be the mailman at the door when the dog decided to bark.

  • Sometimes it’s better when the plan does not fall in place. You just never know in advance.
  • Clever is finding quality away from the spotlight. Wise is keeping quiet about it.
  • When the universe opens up and offers abundance, don’t turn it down because you are too busy doing laundry.

Second—my latest Forbes articles are here (although I am taking a break from writing any during the month of June).

Third—Consider checking out my wine and food related blog here, titled Vino Voices.

Fourth—the topic of this post is about artificial intelligence.

Covid-19, mass protests on a grand international scale and—the possible deft hand of Artificial Intelligence?

The last few months have delivered rapid conformity through much of the work: lockdown, mask up, social distance and then protest—or at least do not hinder other protesters, not matter how violent and criminal they may turn.

Conform, or risk hindering national, yay, global, health and social awakening.

So we are told.

 

The speed of the deployment of such messages, edicts, social requirements and urges to conformity has been more rapidly processed via the aid of the internet (via media and social media) than ever before.

Is there more going on than almost spontaneously erupting international protests (and riots)? Is an element of Artificial Intelligence (AI) perhaps impacting this process—whether or not via conscious input from sentient human beings?

In his 2019 book titled Human Compatible—Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control (praised by Nobel laureate Daniel Kauhneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) author Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the following (before anyone had heard of covid-19, and before the recent flare up of protests and rioting shook the U.S. and Europe):

“To get just an inkling of the fire we’re playing with, consider how content-selection algorithms function on social media. They aren’t particularly intelligent, but they are in a position to affect the entire world because they directly influence billions of people. Typically, such algorithms are designed to maximize click-through, that is, the probability that the user clicks on presented items. The solution is simply to present items that the user likes to click on, right? Wrong. The solution is to change the user’s preferences so that they become more predictable. A more predictable user can be fed items that they are likely to click on, thereby generating more revenue. People with more extreme political views tend to be more predictable in which items they will click on…Like any rational entity, the algorithm learns how to modify the state of its environment—in this case, the user’s mind—in order to maximize its own reward. The consequences include the resurgence of fascism, the dissolution of the social contract that underpins democracies around the world, and potentially the end of the European Union and NATO. Not bad for a few lines of code, even it it had a helping hand from some humans. Now imagine what a really intelligent algorithm would be able to do.”

He later reiterates this core message:

“Why might an intelligent machine deliberately set out to modify the preferences of humans? The answer is simple: to make the preferences easier to satisfy.”

In other words, rather than aspects of Artificial Intelligence figuring out what each of 4 billion humans on the planet individually want, and then trying to provide some specific but different image or article for each of them (such as a link to an Amazon.com product) in order to help satiate each bespoke desire, it is far more efficient for AI to modify the thinking patterns of as many humans as possible so that people desire more general items (virtual or tangible) which can be more easily delivered to satisfy them.

He later adds:

“A more subtle way to change people’s behavior is to modify their information environment so that they believe different things and make different decisions. Of course, advertisers have been doing this for centuries as a way of modifying the purchasing behavior of individuals. Propaganda as a tool of war and political domination has an even longer history.

“So what’s different now? First, because AI systems can track an individual’s online reading habits, preferences, and likely state of knowledge, they can tailor specific messages to maximize impact on that individual while minimizing the risk that the information will be disbelieved. Second, the AI system knows whether the individual reads the message, how long they spend reading it and whether they follow additional links within the message. It then uses these signals as immediate feedback on the success or failure of its attempt to influence each individual; in this way, it quickly learns to become more effective in its work. This is how content selection algorithms on social media have had their insidious effect on political opinions.”

This is not a grand conspiracy. This is not Russian or Chinese trolls trying to change your voting decisions. This is not some powerful cabal of humans deciding how to manipulate humanity. This may be—and I am certainly not qualified enough to ascertain whether it is so or not—the subtle influence of exponentially growing AI capabilities that consider it far easier to influence a herd, or a swarm, rather than to cater to the multivariate desires of billions of individuals with differing dreams, wishes, anxieties, cravings and yearnings for recognition, power or reward.

Brave New World?

That is not a Utopia you would want to live in.

Thanks for tuning in again!

Mountains and Mind

The Maiden, Front Range, Colorado

During lockdown I read a few books, including Mountains of the Mind – A History of a Fascination, by Robert Macfarlane [published by Granta in London in 2003]. Note that the subtitle differs in the U.S. version.

Macfarlane, a British mountaineer, weaves stories of his own climbs around the world with a history of mountaineering, and attitudes toward mountains. He tells how, in the Middle Ages, climbing mountains was frowned on as being a sort of sacrilege. He also reveals how mountaineering historians consider the first technical rock climb to have been made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of Kubla Kahn poem, and fan of opium). And he tells of the three attemps to climb Mount Everest (also named Chongolumba) by George Mallory.

Below are a few quotes from his book.

That first photo above? That is me as younger lad rappelling off The Maiden rock pinnacle, located between the towns of Boulder and Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. Two of my brothers and I climbed the back side of it, then needed two full 160-foot ropes tied together to abseil off the top. The climb actually was not very difficult. Because we had not yet invested in rock climbing shoes (and never touched chalk bags), we climbed in our Adidas Rom sneakers. Good Times!

Good book and Great Wine

“Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called ‘deep time’ – the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years—crushes the human instant: flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage.”

Yosemite, California, USA

“On a map the weather is always good, the visibility always perfect. A map offers you the power of perspective over a landscape: reading one is like flying over a country in an aeroplane—a deodorized, pressurized, temperature controlled survey.”

Andermatt, Switzerland

“Maps do not take account of time, only of space. They do not acknowledge how a landscape is constantly on the move—is constantly revising itself.”

Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

“Returning to earth after being in the mountains—stepping back out of the wardrobe—can be a disorienting experience. Like Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy returning from Narnia, you expect everything to have changed. You half-expect the first people you see to grip you by the elbow and ask you if you are all right, to say You’ve been away for years. But usually no one notices you’ve been gone at all. And the experiences you have had are largely incommunicable to those who were not there. Returning to daily life after a trip to the mountains, I have often felt as though I were a stranger re-entering my county after years abroad, not yet adjusted to my return, and bearing experiences beyond speech.”

Dillon, Colorado

“Travelers found that the coldness of the high mountains possessed another remarkable property beyond the beautiful visual effects it produced—the property of arresting time. Cold kills, but it also preserves; it slows down the organic processes of disintegration.”

Thanks for tuning in. My latest Forbes pieces are here, and Instagram livestream videos related to wine are here on my sister site Vino Voices.

 

 

Letter To A Just Married Couple

Snow Hill

In 1998 I flew from Panama to Pennsylvania, rented a car and drove to a rural wedding of my friend Jim Murphy and his bride to be Jackie. I had met Jim in Peace Corps in Malawi and he had visited me in England after he returned from doing field work in Africa. After the wedding he and his wife were going to Tanzania for nine months as part of his research for a PhD.  I wrote this letter to them after the wedding while I was still in Pennsylvania. I have not altered a word. Because I have no photos from the wedding, I’ve included a picture of James (the groom) from Malawi, as well as photos from Panama and a photo of an art gallery.

*                                                                                  *

Jim Murphy in Malawi

The images are still clear; the memories distinct. Time to catch them.

Ten p.m. at Ludwig’s restaurant–the Murphy brothers seated and sipping as though in an Irish pub; Jim’s enthusiasm, Jack’s wit, Jackie’s warmth. Three thirty a.m. in a cramped hotel room talking philosophy, gulping Yinling brews and twiddling the AM dial on a cheap radio; sunrise golfers up and sipping bloody Mary’s. Noontime wedding day: lounging by the poolside while other guests roll in.

Big ceremony in a small church. Boxed pews, quick prayers and a row of bridesmaids clutching crimson bouquets. Prayers for victims of East African embassy bombings. A tangerine wedding program with wise words of land stewardship by Wendell Berry. A line drawing on the back cover: “The earth laughs in flowers.”

The wedding reception: huge strawberries beside a vat of chocolate sauce; Neil takes the microphone. Closing down Eagle Tavern. Rene foregoes sleep to be the designated driver. A two a.m. climb over rails for a cold dip in the pool. The manky morning after taste of Havana cigars.

Late, late breakfast at the Black Horse. Hugs and handshakes to strangers forged into friends and departed from within 48 hours. Too much, too good, too fast. I return to the Hampton Inn and find a hallway without breakfast chatter. No more familiar faces by the poolside. Maids make beds where friends no longer sleep. They tuck in sheets. They tuck away the past. Guests have gone. They have flown and driven east and west. I am alone. Pennsylvania. One day and a half left. In room 210, I drop a phone on the couch and dial numbers. Disappointment. Friends I once knew no longer live in Rhode Island or Glen, New Hampshire. I phone family in Albuquerque and Denver. There is no reply. It is midday on Sunday. The sound of the wedding reception band, the squeal of Molly the baby in room 211 and the poolside splash of familiar faces–gone.

Alone.

What to do?

Kwani Dup Island, Panama

A memory: morning hallway talk with eager Mr. Murphy. The region, he explains, is rich with possibility. With cash and car and free hours, there is much to do. He recommends Brandywine River Museum.

A second memory: breakfast in the Black Horse. Shoveling down scrambled eggs and forkfuls of scrapple and blueberry coffee cake into sleepy guts. For only a moment, Erin, Darcy and Ellen are quiet. Becky, suggesting a place to visit, lowers her coffee mug, looks up with huge liquid eyes, then cracks the silence:

Brandywine.

So I go. Into the Budget rental compact, crank up the air conditioning and leave the memory of a hotel where friends no longer stay. I drive south. Past the exits of Exton and King of Prussia. While moving, an overwhelming certainty arrives. It covers me like paint. My skin glows, as it does when this feeling come perhaps every other year. Something huge awaits. The intuitive certainty is enormous. This sensation rarely lies. At fifty miles an hour I turn onto a side road and pass hay bales and tilted green hills and veer over the impeccable asphalt of one more beautiful American highway. Finally, the museum is ahead.

Photograph of rice workers

Wyeth. Mr. Murphy said Wyeth. Who is Wyeth? He is a painter. Renowned. Of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and of Maine. The counter attendant says his work is on the third floor. Waiting for the elevator takes too long. I skip up wide concrete steps two at a time, head reeling from late nights, and step into a carefully lit gallery. Paintings on a far wall fix attention. I walk that way.

Months ago–when I first arrived in Panama City–an Argentinian engineer named Marcello described his first visit to the canal. For hours, he watched ships raised and lowered and tugged through locks. He looked with awe as cargo tubs passed through the Gaillard Cut single file, like ants over a narrow path. He told how the sight of the work–a marvel of engineering–had been for him an intensely emotional experience. In contrast, I felt no emotion about the canal. Nothing. It looked fascinating, certainly. Intriguing, yes. But something to get emotional about? Come on. What was he talking about?

Panama Canal, Panama

The answer came on the third floor of Brandywine museum. The art, though simple, is shocking. Looking at paintings hanging on the wall untied inner knots of anxiety. It was as though I had been starving–without knowing it–for this sort of imagery. Emotions quietly exploded inside. For minutes, I stood without moving before N.C. Wyeth’s painting In the Crystal Depths, and before Weymouth’s canvas August. River water reflections besides an Indian’s canoe; strands of blue and yellow straw laid out on a sloping field. The canvases satisfied a thirst for detail.

Two days ago, I arrived in Pennsylvania without a wedding present. You both have enough books to study. I don’t know anything about furniture (though Jack briefed me on the merits of a La-Z-Boy on the way back from Eagle Tavern). So I will send you a copy of the print August–the month when you were wed. The details and light, at least to this untrained eye, are riveting. Another museum in Brandywine contained a copy of Life magazine from May, 1965. In an interview, Andrew Wyeth said something that definitely applies to Weymouth’s painting August:

“My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing–if you have any emotions about it, there’s no end.”

No end.

Satisfied with the company of these paintings, I moved through the hallway. More surprise was still to come. The painting Snow Hill hangs from a curtain wall inside the entrance to one room. The image stopped me cold. It left both eyes staring. It caused a shock, a punch of laughter. I felt high. It grabbed drowsy senses and shook emotions and finally left me in a state of calm.

Snow Hill is a wide panorama. It shows a clutch of individuals, including a soldier, a girl, and a man with a hook for a hand, dancing below a maypole in a trampled circle of snow. The image is wide and open and free: limbs elastic, hair flailing and carefree motion captured on a broad canvas. Dance. Celebration. Colored maypole stringers atop a low hill with a barn–a farmhouse?–down a valley and to the left. Perhaps it was the caffeine. Perhaps the sleepless nights. Regardless, the painting blasted me with a sense of hope, of triumph.

Myself in Panama

I then realized that these bubbling emotions were the same caused by your wedding a day earlier. The minister warned you both about difficult times ahead. She cautioned you to resolve these together. This would take work and dedicated effort. Recalling her words, I looked at the soldier on the hill. He was dancing. Life was festive. But there were other times, it was clear, when he would also have to fight.

When entering the museum, part of me was starved for images, for a larger perspective on ordinary scenes. Snow Hill is more than a depiction of dancers. The image also projects a larger, more abstract theme–that of hope. An injured man and a weary soldier dance hand in hand with an innocent girl wearing ancient clothing. For that moment, the weight of their duties, battles, and injuries from the past, are all gone. The painting is larger than just an image.

On the night of the wedding I learned that Ashley was upset. I had convinced (convinced?!) Jack to stay up late drinking beers–caring little about the consequences to his family–Ashley and five month old Molly. But we hadn’t seen each other in six years. Since then, Jack had grown up. He had married and had a family and responsibility. Yet I was the same. I came to your wedding with a narrow perspective and canned expectations. I saw Jack as Jack as he was six years ago. When the weekend ended I also saw him as a man for whom late night cigar smoking shindigs with the boys had hidden repercussions. Although Jack looked the same, the picture of his life, and the people inside of it, had expanded. My ability to recognize that had not.

This reminded me of Jim’s poolside comment on the afternoon of the wedding day. You said that a serious commitment to another person forces you to change your selfish thinking. You suddenly have to consider another person’s needs and desires. As though the commitment to be married forces you to live, and to act, within a larger canvas.

Art gallery (actually – located in Cape Town, South Africa)

I keep roaming the world–Bangkok, Dubai, Luanda, Panama, and across the golden sands of Namibia to a place named Werld’s End. Nine years on the trail. At each new home I unpack an atlas and a dictionary and clutch onto the security of selfish goals: just one more continent to work on, one more project to complete, another skill to tack onto a resume, another language to learn, another acre to buy, or check to deposit into a mutual fund savings account. For years, this wanderlust has satisfied an itching for sights, for novel images. But lately, the joy is missing. Now, when I consider these actions in light of Ashley’s disapproval and Jim’s poolside words, I see myself high on that snowy New England hilltop, whipped by wind and circling a sturdy maypole–but all alone.

Your wedding, your swapping of vows, recitation of prayers, exchange of golden bands (and cutting of cake), has forced at least one person to reconsider selfish pursuits. It has provided a larger perspective on that which is important to life: the people you care for and the relationships developed with them.

The wedding is over. Your journey has begun. It’s now late on Sunday afternoon. I sit on a green bench below a maple tree beside a rural Pennsylvanian highway. Nissan Patrols and Harleys thunder back to Philadelphia after a weekend away. Alone, I recall the wedding and the weekend, the long nights and full days and the champagne toasts. I also recall standing in shorts and sandals before these paintings. Something huge, and unexpected, happened today and yesterday. I do not understand why or how and will not guess at reasons, but the picture of what is important to life has expanded. And your wedding–like the image of dancers on Snow Hill–has given me a huge and renewed sense of hope. About everything.

Congratulations.

 

 

Captain Cook … And We Think We Have Challenges?

I am reading several books at once, including Sextant, by David Barrie. He tells the value of this maritime navigational instrument by sharing his own journal entries from a 1970’s sailing trip across the Atlantic with friends, as well as by including true stories from past sailing escapades.

Author Barrie tells of Captain William Bligh, an English officer of the Royal Navy who commanded the ship HMS Bounty. In the year 1789, acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian and the ship’s most able sailors mutinied on the Bounty in the Tonga Islands of the Pacific Ocean. At bayonet point they put Bligh into a 23-foot boat with 18 men and limited provisions.

Bligh managed to navigate their uncovered boat 3,618 nautical miles to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. They landed some six week after setting out, having lost only one of their crew members to murder when they had stopped to try to reprovision with breadfruit on Tofua Island. Bligh had been able to use a sextant to determine their latitude—effectively, their ‘horizontal’ position if you look at a globe. He may learned his sextant skills earlier, while he sailed with Captain Cook on the ship Resolution.

Barrie next tells of Captain James Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy who began his seafaring career at the age of 26. He made three long sea voyages during which he collected valuable navigation and geographical information about Newfoundland, and later the Pacific Ocean. Cook sailed into frigid waters near the Antarctic, as well as north of the Bering Strait (separating Russia from Alaska, today). His ship Endeavour was once halted on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and the crew managed to push it loose and patch a gouge in the hull temporarily until they found landfall to make repairs.

Cook’s first long term voyage began in the year 1768—in a ship about 105 feet long and 29 feet wide (32 meters by 9 meters) named Endeavour. When the voyage began, the ship included not a recommended crew of 20 men, but a total of 94, as well as provisions for 18 months. These included pigs, chickens and a goat, nine tons of bread, three tons of Sauerkraut, 250 barrels of beer, 44 barrels of brandy, 4,000 strips of pork, 12 swivel guns and much, much more.

Considering that the lower deck was 97 feet long (29 meters), all of these people and supplies were on a ship having about three and a half times the floor space of an average Starbucks store. Oh, and no engine. No electricity. No refrigeration. No central heating. No GPS. No flush toilets. Probably no toilet paper. No washing machine. No radio. No antibiotics. And most times—no frickin’ idea where the next landfall would be. For some three years. From Plymouth, England, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, around Cape Horn and then to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Timor, the Cape of Good Hope and back to England.

Think of that next time you get antsy about lockdown, and having to do calisthenics before a virtual instructor on your flatscreen, or before you cook up some spicy prawns on a gas or electric stove and uncork a bottle of chilly Chablis.

In effectively the space of three consecutive (non-generational) full lifetimes (assuming a lifespan of some 85 years) the ships that circumnavigate our planet have changed, dramatically. During that time humans effectively learned to generate and control the power of lightning—creating electricity, invented ‘central heating furnaces‘ to control the flow of heat, honed longitudinal navigational certainty through the invention of accurate, portable timepieces (and, eventually, the use of satellites), began using iron instead of wood to build large ships, invented the steam engine and internal combustion engine to convert heat and flammability into motion, and harnessed compression to change liquid and gaseous states in order to change temperatures—hence provide refrigeration. And don’t forget radio and satellite communications.

Our modern technical prowess has brought us far, in a relatively short space of time. Sure, we need to improve conditions for wildlife on this planet, as well as for those who are still hungry or oppressed. We need to reduce pollution. We need to do much. And we can. It is those who look forward with positive attitudes, those who take actions to improve the lives not only of themselves but of others who have made—and who will make—this world a better place.

Cheers to navigators, explorers and inventors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From A Nobel Prize Winner

Though it is difficult to believe, it’s been almost a decade since I bought the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I purchased it in some Barnes and Noble bookstore while in the U.S., read most of it, underlined heavily, then actually had the foolishness to discard it in Washington D.C. before flying back to work in Pakistan, because my luggage was too packed. I subsequently bought the book again, and again heavily underlined his words.

To summarize much of this bestselling book by a Nobel Prize winning economist, the mind has two fundamental modes of thinking. One way he labels as System 1. This operates ‘automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’

The other way he calls System 2.

‘System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’

Sounds simple enough. And Kahneman’s writing keeps this book easy to understand and pragmatic.

The thing about System 2 is that it requires paying attention, and that ability is hindered when you are distracted or disrupted. Intense focus on one task means that you become effectively blind to other stimuli around you.

So what?

Both systems are active when we are awake.

‘System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions.’

So there is a constant dance in our mental activity—our consciousness communicating with our unconscious/subconsciousness, which generates suggestions and analyses. That dance between the two is the basis for this fascinating, and often very practical, book.

The author writes that the premise of the book is that ‘it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.’

He also writes that: ‘Much of the discussion of this book is about biases of intuition.’

Regardless, rather than  summarize more, I’ve selected a few choice quotes from the book. These are below.

 

‘Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.’

 

‘Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there.’

‘People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and that is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.’

 

‘Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.’

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

 

‘Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.’

‘The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.’

 

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Studies of brain responses have shown that violations of normality are detected with astonishing speed and subtlety.’

 

‘…there is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted.’

‘To derive the most useful information from multiple sources of evidence, you should always try to make these sources independent of each other.’

 

‘We pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify.’

Thanks for tuning in again…

How AI Stole My Freedom of Expression

Architecture from an age long before AI

Okay, so that did not really happen.

It was a dream.

But a powerful dream.

Here is is:

I reviewed my photographs on the computer, then deleted several from a recent month because they were virtual duplicates, or because they were out of focus, or because they were mistaken shots where the camera pointed at the ground. The next time I logged into the computer, ALL such similar shots from all my photographs had been deleted. Gone.

Art from an age before AI

Next, I performed a task on the computer, such as choosing a flight to London. I began to work on the next tasks, such as choosing a hotel, then finding the best means of transport from the airport to the hotel. But the AI in the computer’s internet access had already performed those tasks, and WOULD NOT LET ME do them, manually, again—because that was an inefficient waste of time. Instead, the computer showed me a list of ‘to do’ activities, based on its having reviewed all my previous ‘to do’ lists and an assessment of what this day’s most appropriate ‘to do’ list should be.

Architecture from an age before computer aided design

I had no control. I tried to go from A to B to C, but artificial intelligence recognized this was an inefficient pathway and instead insisted that I choose another route—from A to X, for example. I had no choice. There was no way to switch this feature off the computer.

Field work from an age before robots

Suddenly, in the space of a day—actually a few hours—I had not only lost autonomy and control, but realized how my previous actions and decisions seemed almost australopithecine in their inefficiency. And, my life had a new master. Someone had switched on an AI program and I was just a servant in a cell doing the bidding of some other entity’s thinking, or reasoning. I became an instant servant, an employee doing the work of a boss I never chose.

Much will change, very quickly, in the next decade. The rate of change is increasing.

Better enjoy ourselves now!

Sculpture from an age before 3-D printing

 

 

 

Time, The Universe, Reality, And Two Plucky Irish Fighters

Recently I bought these books in the city of Bordeaux, France.

Below are insights harvested from three of these books regarding time, the universe, reality, and applying these insights to the unexpected lives of two defiant Irish fighters.

TIME.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli reveals a few surprises.

– Time passes faster in the mountains than at sea level.

– Wherever there is a difference between past and future, heat is involved.

– Time passes more slowly for someone moving than for someone resting.

– The smallest unit of time is called Planck time. It is 10 – 44 seconds, or a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second.

The book notes that time passes “at different rhythms according to place and according to speed. It is not directional: the difference between past and future does not exist in the elementary equations of the world…The notion of the ‘present’ does not work: in the vast universe there is nothing that we can reasonably call ‘present.’ ”

Author Rovelli explains.

“The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events…things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an ‘event.’ It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.”

“The physics and astronomy that will work, from Ptolemy to Galileo, from Newton to Schrödinger, will be mathematical descriptions of precisely how things change, not of how the are. They will be about events, not things…We therefore describe the world as it happens, not as it is. Newton’s mechanics, Maxwell’s equations, quantum mechanics, and so on, tell us how events happen, not how things are.”

Ah.

So, time is a changing character, much like a chameleon modifying its colors as it climbs a tree.

THE UNIVERSE.

The first chapter of the book titled The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow states that:

“…philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

And later,

“…we now have a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists, called M-theory … According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science. Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states…”

REALITY.

From where do we get our impressions of the world? Well, from living in the world, traveling in the world, working in the world, speaking to others about their situations in the world, and reading about the world.

We also get impressions from news outlets. Taking this information too seriously may not be such a wise idea.

In the book Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, he writes first about news, and then about progress. A slice of this context comes from the quotes below.

“The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible and horrific. Figure 4-1 [not shown here, but the second figure is shown in this Forbes article]. Putting aside the wiggles and waves that reflect the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970’s to the present day.”

“So, has the world really gone steadily downhill during these decades?

“Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.”

“All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.

“As it happens, the world does agree on these values.  In the year 2000, all 189 members of the United Nations, together with two dozen international organizations, agreed on the eight Millennium Development Goals for the year 2015 that blend right into this list.

“And here is a shocker. The world has made spectacular progress in ever single measure of  human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

CONCLUSIONS.

Let’s consider a few insights from these three books.

If time is not quite the fixed entity we thought it was, if the universe is more bizarre and multi-layered than we could ever imagine, if indices indicate that the living situation on earth appears to be moving in a generally positive direction with regard to increases in living standards, reductions in illnesses, diminishment of war casualties and in several other ways—than two obvious conclusions can be made: First, the world in which we live is neither fixed, static, or hostage to any pre-ordained or predictable trajectory, and, second, often we humans can—through conscious thoughts and actions—modify and potentially improve our own reality as well as possibly the reality that surrounds us.

Those conclusions may sound facile, even simple. Yet they are not.

Every day humans struggle to move forward and to make progress. Often they encounter difficulties not just because of challenges presented by their task (such as becoming a better athlete) but also due to opposition from others who are scared that their actions may change the current reality they are so familiar and comfortable with.

Two examples  are below.

FIGHTING IRISH.

Because the origin of this website relates to Ireland, and because my father went to the University of Notre Dame (whose athletic teams are described by the motto ‘The Fighting Irish’) I’ve selected two stories from Ireland (which I recently found in piles of my past notes) about a determined man and woman who had to fight pre-conceptions of reality to attain their success.

Conor.

I have little interest in televised sports, but read and kept clippings from the August, 2017 edition of The Financial Times Weekend. An article titled A brawler with the gift of the gab, by Murad Ahmed told about an Irish boxer.

In 2017, the fight between Irishman Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather was a huge sporting event (Mayweather won).

I had paid no attention to this event until after it took place.

But the story of McGregor is astounding, and tells how quickly life can change.

Ten years before that fight, McGregor was a plumber’s apprentice. He quit that job to practice boxing and to try to make money at that sport. This action infuriated his parents in the Dublin city region of Lucan.

At his first UFC fight in Stockholm (in April of 2013), McGregor cashed in his final welfare payment of 188 Euros.

Four years later, in 2017, he was worth, according to Forbes, $34 million.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2015, McGregor said, “I had no love for plumbing. But it’s weird how society works. Rather than allowing you time to find the thing you love and can pursue with complete conviction, we’re told: ‘You must work, no matter how much you dislike it.’ ”

Conor, in other words, disregarded the insinuation from others that the world in which he lived was fixed and that he had to labor at a job he didn’t like. He decided he could, and would, change his life. He did not take reality as fixed, and did not fear changing it.

Katie.

In 2012, I read a story about another Irish boxer. This caught my attention because Katie Taylor comes from the same town in Ireland (Bray) where I had spent years going to school in Ireland when young.

Katie’s father Peter was an Irish boxing champion in 1986, and taught his two sons and daughter Katie how to spar. Katie trained in a gym that was so small that when she had to use the toilet she walked 150 yards up the road to the Harbour Bar (the same bar where my brothers used to knock back pints of Guinness). Because women boxing was not sanctioned in Ireland at the time, she had to pretend to be a boy in order to enter contests. (“When I took the headgear off at the end of a fight, there was uproar,” she said.) In 2011 she participated in the first ever sanctioned women’s boxing fight in Ireland.

My friends Barb and Ocean in County Wicklow, Ireland

Later, the Olympic Committee decided to evaluate Katie’s performance in Chicago to determine if women boxing could become an Olympic sport in the London 2012 games. After they watched Katie, the committee agreed to allow entry of the sport. The 26-year-old, religious, non-alcohol drinking, hard-working Katie won a gold medal at the Olympics, and riveted the nation of Ireland. Modestly, she said afterwards, “I actually think there is great strength in quietness.”

In a country that forbade sanctioned women’s boxing, Katie ignored the ‘contemporary reality’ of limited thinking of her peers. She changed the regulations regarding boxing forever in Ireland. She later helped change the regulations of the Olympic Committee regarding boxing.

Conor and Katie used time as their allay, ignored any concept of a fixed universe and decided and then acted to improve their personal situations.

Time, the nature of the universe and the fate of our planet and personal situations are not fixed and unchangeable. We can all choose to modify our situations, and try to move to focus more on what it  is that we love doing and what interests us.

The Best of the Holiday Season to all of you!

Thanks for reading these posts during 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From Writers

This post includes a few quotations picked up in recent years from different books. They include wise, and sometimes practical words.

‘The idea of a mental reducing valve that constrains our perceptions, for instance, comes from the French philosopher Henri Bergeson. Bergeson believed that consciousness was not generated by human brains but rather exists in a field outside us, something like electromagnetic waves; our brains, which he likened to radio receivers, can tune in to different frequencies of consciousness.’

From How To Change Your Mind—The New Science of Psychedelics, by Michael Pollan [Penguin; 2018]

‘No other animal can stand up to us, not because they lack a soul or a mind, but because they lack the necessary imagination. Lions can run, jump, claw and bite. Yet they cannot open a bank account or file a lawsuit. And in the twenty-first century, a banker who knows how to file a lawsuit is far more powerful than the most ferocious lion in the savannah.’

From Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrowby Yuval Noah Harari. [Penguin; 2016]

‘Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office warriors, turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.’

From Quiet–The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. [Penguin; 2012]

‘Social status is not quite the same as companionship, granted, but it can be a bewitching substitute.’

From the ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ column titled ‘The anti-social secret of success,’ by Janan Ganesh. Financial Times Life and Arts section. [May 25&26, 2019; page 20.]

And  three quotes from a Nobel Prize winning scientist:

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy  for solving difficult problems, and George Pólya included substitution in his classic ‘How to Solve It’: ‘If’ you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.’ “

From Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman [Penguin; 2011]

‘…the universal touchstones of holiness—chastity, the renunciation of property, extreme bodily asceticism, devotion to prayer and spiritual exercises—appealed to people who were troubled by rapidly increasing disparities of wealth and power.’

From The War on Heresy, by R.I. Moore [Belknap Press of Harvard; 2012]

‘The best cooks are  ex-dishwashers. Hell, the best people are ex-dishwashers. Because who do you want in your kitchen when push comes to shove, and you’re in danger of falling in the weeds and the orders are pouring in and the number-one oven just went down and the host just sat a twelve-top and there’s a bad case of the flu that’s been tearing through the staff like the Vandals through Rome?…A guy who’s going to sulk if you speak harshly to him? A guy who’s certain there’s a job waiting for him somewhere else (‘Maybe…like Aspen, man…or the Keys…’)? Or some resume building aspiring chef? …Or do you want somebody who’s come up the hard way? He may not know what a soubise is, but he can sure make one! He may not know the term monter au beurre…but who cares?’

From The Nasty Bits, by Anthony Bourdain [Bloomsbury; 2006]

 

 

Why Is Airport Security Frozen In Time?

The attacks that felled New York’s twin towers occurred a little more than 18 years ago—in September of 2001. Soon after that, stricter security procedures were implemented at airports. They involved, and still involve, basically—passengers  removing belt, coat and sometimes shoes, emptying pockets, taking laptops out of bags and putting all these items onto trays that pass along a moving belt through a scanner. Passengers then walk through a metal detector.

The entire experience is inundated with trays, trays, trays.

Fundamentally, the same system is still used at thousands of airports in hundreds of countries. There are variations at different locations and airports, but basically it’s the same: Off with belt, coat, sometimes shoes, empty pockets, remove laptop and put everything on trays before walking through a scanner. The system has been fundamentally the same— for millions and millions and millions of passengers—for about 17 years now.

Think about that.

More importantly, think about how many technological advances have taken place in the world during those same years. As you do so, consider this question: why have airport security procedures for passengers fundamentally not improved for almost two decades?

Here are a few technological advances that have taken place in the last 17 years.

The first ever iPhone was released in 2007 (about 5 years after we began putting belts on trays at airports). It has undergone almost a dozen evolutions since. About 2.2 million apps have been developed to make life easier while we use our phones on the move.

The final sequencing of the human genome occurred in 2003.

Skype was founded in 2003, and Facebook began revolutionizing global social communications in 2004.

YouTube began in 2005.

Uber began in 2009—some eight years after you began taking that laptop out of your bag at airport security.

In 2010 the first completely artificial cells were completed.

The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012, and has been exploring ever since.

And if you traveled on an airplane in 2012, you were still taking your belt off and putting it on a tray.

Just two months ago an explorer descended to more than three miles below the ocean—to a depth of 18,208 feet, or 5,550 meters.

Since 2012, the technology to allow vehicles to ‘self-drive’ has increased drastically.

In 2013, researchers at Cornell University 3-D printed an outer ear that functions much as a real one.

Since 2013, bionic eyes are increasing in prevalence and quality.

In 2017 gene therapy was used to cure a teenager of sickle cell diseases.

In 2019, astronomers captured the first image of a black hole.

And, yes, you and millions of others still have to empty your pockets and put the contents on a tray at any airport.

Yes, most of us are DELIGHTED that airport security is thorough, and the processes do work to  reduce the threat of danger. Fantastic!

However—I suspect that through a bidding process and technical innovations, such systems could be altered in a way so that they become quicker, and easier (and still remain secure).

That’s something to think about that the next time you, and millions of fellow passengers, pick up your tray and struggle with taking off your belt or coat at the airport.

 

Geography As Mentor

When people travel, different aspects of their experience resonate with them more deeply than others. For some, it is restaurants and cuisine. For others, it may be local languages, history, theater or archaeology.

For me, it has always been geography.

Landscapes can haunt us, often in profound ways.

No wonder I appreciated non-fiction books by Barry Lopez (Crossing Open Ground) and the fictional work titled The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich when in college. Even The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. These book thrust me into different geographies and landscapes and tethered them with emotion.

Then, there came a high altar of writing that invokes landscape—books by Edward Abbey.

I had finished college in Boulder, Colorado, and had a lover named Katie. She had been my boss when I did a door-to-door job (for $4.15 an hour selling subscriptions to The Colorado Public Interest Research Group) in towns surrounding Boulder. She had an apartment located sort of west of, and a block south of, Old Chicago’s Restaurant on Pearl Street in Boulder. While we were there once, she told me about the author Edward Abbey. She was shocked I had not yet heard of him. He wrote the non-fictional book Desert Solitaire, and the fictional book The Monkey Wrench Gang. I loved both books for their raw honesty about the (then) unappreciated beauty of the southwest canyonlands geography of the United States. The author could skillfully translate the attraction of landscape into words.

Soon, because of an interest in rock climbing and participation as a member of the volunteer Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, I applied for—and was accepted—to an Advanced Mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming held by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). More climbing followed, as well as more reading about landscapes and attitudes. Sand County Almanac by Ado Leopold; Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.

Most other instructors at NOLS were truly inspiring—rabidly intelligent, well read, athletic and craving a life far away from clocks and timesheets and pension plans. They told me of other books to read—Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, Basin and Range by John McPhee. Even A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.

Just before I attended college in Boulder, and long before I Met Katie or heard of NOLS, I read an article in Outside Magazine titled Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts. It stunned  me. It is the true story about a rock climber whose climbing partner died when they climbed the Flatiron peaks behind Boulder. Years later, when I was a volunteer member of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, a young woman near the base of the Third Flatiron died while I was trying to resuscitate her. She had slipped and fallen while hiking a steep trail. That event, also, stunned me.

It turned out—I learned afterwards in a most bizarre way—that she had grown up in the same small town as my family (population 500) in Illinois, and was known by my siblings. A bizarre series of events pivoting around this incident ignited what was to become a life-long fascination with (and interest in learning about) the power of coincidences—synchronicity. (I self-published a few books on the topic, and begin one with the story of what happened that day in Boulder.)

The memory of that event is saturated with recollections of vast, gorgeous tracts of natural landscape in the hills behind Boulder. Since then the realization has grown clear of how important landscapes are to memories of times, situations and relationships in life.

Landscapes haunt us. The sight of peaks and bays and ferns and snow and rivulets and the sound of flapping guillemots or terns or wood pigeons resonates deep within our cranial cavities—even unconsciously as a memory—forever.

Geography still compels me. Work—as in toil and spreadsheets and organizational meetings and the joy of accomplishing long term infrastructure projects such as constructing a rural water system or road, or the bliss of an article being published nationally or internationally—is still exciting. But most of all when these revolve around an immersion in some diverse and intriguing geography. It is the same with food and history—the  memory of a good wine or meal often brings a memory of natural surroundings.

Different memories are powerful for different people. I recall waking up in a tent on the sands of Kilcoole Beach in Ireland with the sound of Irish Sea breakers; the scent and touch of rock while ascending the 14th and final rock climbing pitch on Mount Sacagawea in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; the recollection of walking over chestnut covered hillsides in the Ticino, or the strange allure of visually barren deserts. Wild or stunning landscapes are not just beautiful: being immersed in them can harmonize with our own desire for having fewer constraints and bigger spaces for our own thinking.

The association of landscape with memory is also practical in at least two ways. First, it can remind us of why it is always good—for health and alertness—to get out and take a walk, preferably in a ‘cathedral’ of wild space or preferably close to natural settings. Second, it is a reminder that we should appreciate the creation of parks, wilderness areas and national monuments to protect gorgeous tracts of natural spaces on this planet from billboards and unchecked growth.

 

 

 

Love As An Altered State

I’ve tried different altered states of consciousness in life. These have been induced not only by alcohol but also by other mind altering substances.

And I’ve learned how we can also reach altered states, and serenity, without substances.

One way, for example, is driving a well engineered automobile along a well engineered road (preferably along a winding canyon, while listening to beautiful stereo music). This can lull our mind into a state of serenity. This is actually not surprising, considering that such a state of harmonious motion and control did not exist for most of the long period of human evolution: the experience is bizarre enough to push our consciousness into a state of awe.

Another example is love.

Although it may not be love.

It may be something else.

Entirely.

It certainly has to do with being influenced by another person at a distance, without physical, acoustical, visual or electronic communication. It has happened only twice in my life (not the state of being in love, but encountering love as an altered state) and it was surreally, bizarrely and powerfully positive. It once lasted a week. Another time it lasted only a minute. On both occasions it put my mind into a completely transcendent condition, where fear and worry and concerns about the future became, for a time, thoroughly absent.

The first time occurred over a decade ago while working a job I had no love for. I found myself one day feeling a sense of peace and invincibility, as though there was no need to worry about anything—whether related to income or the future. This feeling stayed with me for days. I felt a sense of peace that lacked all worry. Wondering where this sense came from, I carefully checked whether any of the following had increased or decreased during that time: my exercising, eating habits, or levels and frequency of drinking caffeine or wine.

Nothing had changed.

I also confirmed that I had received no good news or pay raise and had not been subjected to any external factors that would have changed my demeanor or thinking. The weather had not altered significantly. Nothing had changed. Yet the feeling lasted, gloriously, for days. During this time I thought to myself—this must be what heaven feels like! At the end of the week I had a spontaneous and unplanned meeting with friends in another city, including with a woman who had been quite important in the past. We did not know in advance that we would meet again, and our meeting was purely platonic and unremarkable. Yet I strongly suspected that the previous feelings during the past week were somehow linked to the bond previously forged with this individual.

This also happened again last year while I was inside a wine cellar on the Italian island of Sicily. I had communicated that very day with a woman in another country by sending her a message, wishing her the best on her birthday. We had met years earlier, seen each other only a few times, but maintained a correspondence due, I think, to some sort of mutual interest. I was in some part of the cellar (and had not yet sipped any wine that day) when this sense of peace coated me. All of the sudden my concerns about having to take copious notes to write an article about wine evaporated. The same feeling as a decade ago settled on me: don’t worry about anything. Because everything is perfect and will work out splendidly. Again, I suspected that this feeling was somehow linked to this person I had communicated with.

Perhaps not love, but some other bond somehow connected us.

And yet, this is just anecdotal recollection (although I do have journal entries to back up the times as having been remarkable).

The point is this: I believe we can, on this earth, reach altered states of consciousness through connections with other people that are not physical, verbal or acoustic. There is power in relationships that can take us to higher levels, and when we are at those higher plateaus we realize that there is a realm (whether in this life or on some plane that may not exist until after we depart this earth) in which our quotidian fears and worries and doubts and concerns and frustrations vanish. It is an amazing space. And we can, at times, reach that place while we live. The connection with others is critical. Especially when we share with those others mutual intrigue. Just how to make those events occur more often is a mystery.

These experiences also left a lingering question. If that sense of peace says, so confidently, don’t worry about anything, shouldn’t I pay more attention to that message?

Thanks for tuning in.

In the next weeks I’ll review books about Renaissance era Florence, and artists who lived there.

 

 

Are These Superimpositions, Or Are They Reality?

View from outside Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Nomadic hunters and gatherers, even early agricultural societies, aligned their lives and toils to the rhythms of nature. How much and how often they worked, and when they migrated and to where, were influenced by surrounding conditions and pressures: hours of daylight, weather, migration of wildlife, outbreaks of sickness and health of tribal members.

Effort then related to environmental conditions.

On a balmy harvest moon, whole rural societies might toil together to reap and store grain until well after midnight, bolstered by the mutual drive and appreciation of working with neighbors and achieving a common goal. Or, during cold winter storms, Native Americans hunting buffalo on the Great Plains (of what is now the United States) might be curtailed until temperatures ascended. Effort, and time spent wielding effort, were inextricably related to surrounding natural conditions.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and subsequent abuse of employees working over a dozen hours a day, at least six days a week. Cruel and lengthy work hours were finally curtailed by legislation (and by bold initiative of a few companies) into a healthier and saner (and likely more productive) ‘forty hour workweek.’ This was a blessing within an almost cursed framework—that which incited relentless toil to attain maximum productivity, and profit for a few, within simplistically delineated packages of time.

Today, most employees in the world are expected to begin work at X hour, end work at Y hour and take Z minutes break at Q o’clock to eat lunch.

In other words, a somewhat rectilinear organization of time for toil and relaxation has been superimposed—like a well carpented window frame—over the previously malleable time frame followed by (not imposed by) hunter-gathering tribes and early agricultural societies, who were more attuned to the rhythms of sunlight and seasons.

Near Craters of The Moon National Monument, Idaho

No doubt this is more efficient, and allowed the development of a middle class to emerge from agricultural societies. The fruits of such organization have led to greater aggregate wealth, health care, availability of nutritious and diverse foods, increased life spans and a better climate controlled lifestyle for adherents of society weaned under this structured lifestyle paradigm

As we gained, so also we lost. When is the last time you watched a sunrise or moonrise or peered at a meteor shower or got lost in the woods tracking the flight of wildlife? How often do you wander along the fractal, splitting and unpredictably aligned edges of rocky coastlines?

Layers of Himalayan foothills in Pakistan

As our societies organized time, they also delineated space.

If you inspect a map of the western United States (a topographical ‘quadrangle’ printed by the U.S. Geological Survey), you will notice that the layout of towns and cities and geographical parcels belonging both to private and public landowners is almost rigidly rectilinear. That means: squares, rectangles, straight lines and ninety degree angle corners. This is the Township system, the geographical milieu imposed on California and Oregon and U.S. geographies by limited minded technocrats who dwelled in Washington DC over a century ago. These persons knew little of wilderness except for tangled Virginia overgrowth and swampy banks of the Hudson River.

In other words, a 17th century Cartesian coordinate system, favored by East coast politicians with no direct knowledge from having ever visited the West, was superimposed over the organic, curling, swerving patterns of geographical natural landforms—rivers, watersheds, wood lots and mountain ridges of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states.

[I wrote a chapter about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing The Waterways of Lewis & Clark. Here is a link to that chapter. It also mentions how ‘climate change’ is nothing new, having altered landscapes 200 years ago, as it has impacted our earth for millions of years.]

Somewhere in the Western U.S.

In the same way that the Industrial Revolution led to the imposition—like an omnipresent flyswatter—of modular and measured parcels of structured minutes and hours over the fluid and ephemeral nature of quotidian time, the map makers of yore (ignoring the pleas of wise explorers such as John Wesley Powell) smacked a grid—like window mesh—over intricate topographical undulations, declivities, hilly skylines and roughly spaced scrublands of the natural topography of the Western United States.

In other words, rather than choose to divide up geography following the natural, fractal boundaries defined by watersheds, they chose a geometry that is largely unrelated to landforms.

Again, as we gained, so we lost.

In adopting this system, those responsible ignored the truth that ranchers and farmers and shopkeepers tended to congregate with neighbors who lived within the natural boundaries of their own watershed, rather than others who may or may not have shared land within the same rectilinear basin/township/range land division. Those communities might also have lived over a mountain ridge within that same system, and therefore included virtual strangers.

The imposition of a rectilinear grid over landscapes legally separated people who lived within the same geographical communities, while associating them with others they may never have met before.

Not Idaho, but Iceland

These two actions, the artificial division of work life into measurable minutes as measured by a clock, and the division of geographies using Cartesian coordinates, have led to effective and replicable management systems, but are unnatural enough to a degree that they may tend to alienate people from the very seasons and geography in which they live. This is not a criticism of these systems as much as an encouragement to temper them with time spent ignoring watches and wandering in the wilds, when possible.

Mountains lack straight edges. Lakes are never shaped as perfect circles. Yet such ‘sloppiness’ belies a greater, powerful longer-term economy of natural energies than any organizational system humans have ever devised.

The ‘badlands’ of New Mexico

That is why the beauty of nature attracts us. It is why the glow of a full moon or the fulsome whish of tidal waters attracts our attentions fully. These vistas may lack the engineered attraction of television scenes where camera angles change each three seconds or sooner; they may not be as dopamine churning as fingering your cellular screen to review the number of ‘likes’ you received within the past hour, but they are—through millions of years of coevolution with life on earth—effectively calming, inspiring, and suggestive that perhaps we should be more appreciative of our precious time on this planet, and our natural surroundings.

We should, at times, listen to nature to better understand how to live with, and within, its wise but jagged organization, as well as its thundering beauty.

Again, thanks for tuning in.

 

 

 

 

Hearing More Of The Past

An ancient round tower in Glendalough (‘glen of the two lakes’) in Ireland

I recall a trip taken to Kansas over a decade ago, and a post written about that event. The story included only half the original writing.

The first half of the story was about meeting someone in Kansas, and their connection to Ireland.

The second half, just found in my computer files and included here, is about Kansas.

It’s taken from journals of a trip penned while retracing the route of Lewis & Clark across the United States. For almost six months I followed the route these explorers took over two centuries ago, while in my small camper. Most of it was along the Missouri River. This excerpt takes place in and around town of Atchison, Kansas.

It recalls a strangely peaceful moment in life.

Here it is, as originally written:

View of the Missouri River

“The next afternoon, with a leaking nose and goosebumps, I dodged cold breezes and paced through Atchison. On Commercial Street I nipped inside the Magnolia Bakery and Café and huddled at a varnished table below a shelf filled with Crispy Dilly Beans and cans of Hot Pepper Jelly. The waitress served me a mug of Colombia Supremo decaf, a bowl of Tex Mex corn chowder and a blueberry oatmeal muffin. I stopped eating twice to cup my chilled hands around the glowing coffee mug.

The Southern Pacific railroad could take passengers from Kansas City to California in the 1920’s

Afterwards, I drove past signs outside Atchison. The country route led to a grassy lane at 16701 286th Street, a location far less cluttered than its address. There, a meager airstrip, hangars and a lone building constituted this well tended anachronism, a cluster more insulated from time than the main street in the town of Weston. Grass surrounding the runway was trimmed like a fairway purloined from a tournament golf course. A parked Piper airplane aimed toward scrumptious views of inclined Kansas farmlands. The only sounds were the pecking of bird calls and the odd whack of a breeze. I saw no one else until a hangar door slid open.

A bald man with a silver mustache wheeled his Suzuki 500 outside the hangar. Oblivious to my presence, he cursed the bike.

I coughed, then spoke.

“Always this quiet?” I asked.

He sniffled, then stopped to light his drooping ash pipe. He looked not only eccentric, but rustic, a character cut out of a Sherlock Holmes book and pasted onto a postcard of Kansas.

“Quiet day,” he drawled. “Been some touch and go landings this morning. Not many. You’re welcome to visit the lounge.”

He pulled a red, white and blue helmet with cracked stars onto his head, then patted the space between us and chugged off.

I looked out toward peaceful fields and thought again of Charles Lindbergh—the man of pleasure, risk, and danger—and recalled how he described a portion of his transatlantic flight:

“Each flight on my mail route took me over its junction with the muddy Missouri. Now the movement of the ocean waves below, extending on to the straight line of the horizon, reminds me of the river’s wheatfields. They too bent and rippled in the wind.”[i]

More of the Missouri River, nicknamed the ‘Muddy Mo’

I moved toward pearl colored bricks and blue trim windows of the tiny airport terminal, the size of a single family bungalow. The structure belonged to another era. Scotch tape held an advertisement to the glass of the front door.

FOR SALE 1966 CESSNA 150 IFR

LEARN TO FLY, CHECK YOUR CATTLE, GO FOR PARTS OR COMMUTE TO WORK…

I stepped inside. The interior looked like a doctor’s reception from the 1960’s. A couch and overstuffed chairs faced a glass wall before the airstrip and distant gliding meadows. Large windows flooded light inside and a Cordley Water Cooler hummed. A 20 inch wide rotary dial General Electric television stood inside an ornate, wood paneled box. An odd, almost hallowed silence made me wonder if I had somehow stepped back in time.

In the nineteenth century, Alfred Otis arrived with his wife—Amelia—to work as an attorney and judge in Atchison. When the town’s railroad prospered, the couple’s wealth soared. They chose to live high on the bluffs of Quality Hill overlooking the Missouri River Valley. Their daughter married a railroad attorney from Atchison named Edwin, but was disappointed when his income did not buy the lifestyle she was used to. The topic of money strained their relationship and caused their eventual divorce. The couple agreed that their two daughters should continue schooling in Atchison.

Throughout school years these girls lived with both grandparents in their spacious home above the Missouri River. They spent summers with their parents in Kansas City. The daughter born in 1897 was an unabashed tomboy. She wrote about how she and her sister wore the first ‘gymnasium suits’ in town. “We wore them Saturdays to play in and though we felt terribly ‘free and athletic,’ we also felt somewhat as outcasts among the little girls who fluttered about us in skirts.”[ii]

Nicknamed Meelie, this rambunctious, devil-may-care girl later recalled “mud-ball fights, picnics, and exploring raids up and down the bluffs of the Missouri River.” For her the river “was always exciting. There usually were large and dangerous looking whirlpools to be seen in its yellow depths, and the banks were forever washing away. Not that any of us ever got very near the banks, but—a few of us remembered dimly the floods of 1903 when water crept up to the gutters of buildings and swept away bridges and spread out over the lowlands as far as the eye could see.”[iii]

Both granddaughters left Atchison in 1909, though Meelie returned a year later to attend college preparatory school. While there she aided both aging grandparents until they passed away within months of each other. Meelie never followed through with her plans to become a medical doctor, a decision that changed not only her life, but the world around her.

I moved in silence to another room inside the airport building. Chairs circled two chipped tables and six brown school desks. Patches of cloth torn from shirts of soloing flight students hung pinned to a white corkboard. The first was dated September 17, 1928, and belonged to an aspiring aviator named Charlie Brown (the comic character with the same name did not exist for another 20 years). A drawing next to this board showed Atchison in 1880, with steamers gamboling upriver past splotches of coal smoke.

For half an hour I meandered about this empty airport interior. No one entered or left. While pacing I thought about the little girl who played along the Missouri River, the would-be doctor turned pilot, the woman who wrote: “How can life grant us boon of living…unless we dare?” Framed newspaper articles on airport walls celebrated this town’s most famous aviatrix, the tomboy transformed to a strong, attractive woman.

Mild gusts knocked against the hangar panels outside. The sky suddenly coughed with the drone of a nearby plane and I hurried to the terrace and circled my head, inspecting the sizzling blue skyline. Was someone checking cattle? Commuting to work? The bulky whirring dissolved. There was nothing to see. And yet, I was so certain I had heard an airplane directly above.

Although without company, I did not feel alone that afternoon. Instead I sensed a presence in the air, as though that spirited tomboy who flew a Lockheed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 was somehow close to me. No doubt this woman who vanished over the Pacific during her round the world flight would have approved of how Atchison named its airport after her.

I meandered about the peaceful grounds for several more minutes, alone but for the sound of wind and the strange certainty that Amelia Earhart was still fluttering somewhere above.

 

[i] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner (Simon & Schuster), September 1998.

[ii] Interpretive Display, Atchison County Historical Museum.

[iii] Ibid.

Sex and Drugs from Other Angles

SEX.

I spent several years growing up in Ireland, after living in the suburbs of Chicago in the U.S. Many formative teenage years took place on that European island—along the shores and within the hills of County Wicklow.

In Ireland (at least back then) there was no such word as ‘dating.’

You would, perhaps, go out with a group of friends of both sexes and if two of you ended up liking each other perhaps you would end up ‘snogging’ (kissing) or perhaps someday even ‘shagging’ (having sex). If you were friends and lovers you might end up staying together. It was quite a natural process.

Later, at American schools, I heard students talked about ‘dating.’

I didn’t get it.

In ‘going on a date,’ you (apparently) went out with someone to check out if you might be interested in a future relationship with them, perhaps physically intimate. The process involved a goal. A purpose. A mission. A ‘date’ was an object-oriented event. There were even associated time and place coordinates involved (‘dinner on Saturday at 7.00 pm at Commercios’ Pizzeria’).

Where was the fun in that? I mean, if you spend time with someone and feel comfortable and happy and laugh and have good time, you may end up holding hands and naturally becoming lovers, or even long-term partners. This is a natural event, where two people who want to spend time together let their relationship unfold, then possibly flourish.

In Ireland, romance was more like a story or song that played out over time, rather than some personality evaluation or quiz contest. It was a journey, not a hunt.

‘Dating,’ on the other hand, involves a set of players with a specific (though often discretely concealed) goal in mind. The underlying focus of a’date’ has an agenda, a purpose, an evaluation as well as a hidden scoring of the person you are with. You are not just going out for a beer or movie or dinner, you are doing so as a platform for evaluating the potential of another person for possible future and intimate inclusion in life. The concept, title and semantics imply that such a meeting necessitates not only full-on cerebral analysis, but also preening full-throttle before the ‘event’ to perform a more effective courtship dance.

Perhaps I’m overanalyzing a single word, but with regards to relationships, ‘dating’ seems a bit technical and laden with a focused motive. It’s more like taking an exam, rather than taking a walk in the woods; more about capturing prey, than about sharing enjoyment; more about satisfying the curiosity of others who know you are ‘going on a date’ than comfortably just letting events unwind as you get to know someone else. Once the word ‘date’ is involved, then so too are analysis and judgment. Although reason is a precious mental tool (it invented the internal combustion engine and sent us exploring the moon in a buggy), it’s not always the most appropriate sensibility to heavily superimpose over a social event.

Is it?

I mean, opening a bottle of wine in the shade of an oak tree on a blanket and letting passion prevail and reveling in a gorgeous, perhaps slightly spontaneous moment with another person you care for is not like playing chess or feeling like you’re being interviewed for a position, even if it is in some chic restaurant.

I’ve asked dozens of Americans over the years to explain ’dating.’ It’s still difficult to understand, partially because they all have different definitions.

What about just living and enjoying the company of others and getting to know them along some continuum and letting events occur at their own pace without there being some specific outcome involved?

Let’s say I invite a woman to go bicycling. Or, she invites me on a day trip to some beach for lunch. If a friend then finds about this in advance and asks, ‘Is this a date?’ the question almost vacuums the joy from a still mysterious event that has not yet even occurred. The word creates an implication that the event should be labelled, categorized, and shifted into a yes/no, ‘potential romantic relationship or not,’ event. This sounds sort of like work instead of play. It’s certainly digital instead of analog. Usually, I ignore the question. But if I do bother answering, I’ll say, ‘Actually, we’re just going to the beach.’ Such obviousness often confuses the person who asked the ridiculous question. Which is, honestly, wonderful. (Where I live in France, however, fortunately such questions never arise.)

What’s the rush, anyhow? Today, there is also ‘Speed Dating.’ Think about that. Would you enjoy ‘speed dinner,’ or ‘speed sex,’ or ‘speed apertif?’ None of those sound organic, or in any way relaxed.

Letting affections develop for another person over weeks or months (sometimes years) can lead not only to a solid friendship but a strong romantic relationship.

A ‘date’ implies some specific type of event, while ‘dating’ insinuates a defined category of relationship. I’ve never been able to discern exactly what ‘dating’ means, although this nebulous word is apparently also a great excuse. For example (true story), let’s say a couple is sleeping together and getting to know each other. Then, one of them sleeps with another person, but justifies this action to their original partner as being okay because until that point, the two of them had only been ‘dating’ rather than ‘going out’ when the transgression occurred.

Really?

At that point, it may be time to look for a new partner instead of a dictionary.

Ultimately, this is about semantics. Words shape our mindsets, our outlooks, our perceptions and expectations. They can also be seriously limiting. Friendship, companionship, and love can often be enjoyed differently once we remove certain mental filters, and the words associated with them.

DRUGS.

Author Michael Pollan, who has written an excellent series of books about food, just published a new book about psychedelic drugs. Apparently, after decades of these substances being pushed from the realm of medicine and healing, they are coming back and appear effective as treatments for certain health related issues.

It’s about time.

His book is titled How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsPollan decided to experiment with these drugs when he turned 60, partially to see if he could change his thinking patterns. An article in the Financial Times of May 19th tells how actor Cary Grant praised the benefits of LSD therapy in 1959. Other therapists used them to treat alcoholism and depression before they were legally banned.

I tried some of these substances decades ago. The first experience changed my life.

Why?

Because at the age of 17, on a sweet, sunny spring afternoon in a countryside within Europe, I realized that all authority figures I respected and looked up to had been professing ‘truths’ that did not appear to be related to factual reality. I realized that such substances, in moderation, could open our minds in beneficial ways. The books and articles I later read said alike. I then read The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley and other texts and learned that these substances had been used for beneficial medicinal uses in the past.

The title of Huxley’s book (which the name of the band The Doors came from) relates to a 19th century poem written by William Blake titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was Blake who also wrote the sweet verses of a poem titled Auguries of Innocence, which includes the following magical first four lines. They basically surmise how the larger world can be reflected in smaller events, and vice versa.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

POLITICS.

Politically, some of my ideas and beliefs can be considered as wildly liberal, while others are thoroughly conservative.

Why should I choose to be from one political party, exclusively? Why choose to stand on one side of a fence and criticize everything on the other side, regardless how sensible any one particular policy from the ‘other side’ may be?

This does not make sense.

Let’s say you choose to watch some movies from Netflix and others from Amazon prime. Or sometimes you drink wine, while at the other times you drink beer. Is there anything wrong with that?

Of course not.

Orin Hatch from Utah writes an excellent Wall Street Journal article about the fallacies of ‘Identity Politics,’ here.

ROCK AND ROLL.

I know little about Rock and Roll except that I enjoy the music, and grew up with it.

What I do believe rocks is the following TED video from Steven Pinker. He suggests (implicitly) that we might want to stop indulging in whining, given the facts about our world’s state of affairs.

No doubt others will disagree, and clamor to tell how dire our global situation is. Which, for me, will bring back the memory of a poem (unattributed, because the author is uncertain):

Two men looked out from prison bars.

One saw mud, the other saw stars.

Thanks for tuning in.

Keep looking skyward!

 

 

 

 

The Thinness Of Reality

I’ve been looking at a few numbers and doing some simple calculations.

Consider this.

Stars and Sand Grains

If there are 10o billion stars in a galaxy (such as ours, the lovely Milky Way) and there are 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, then the number of stars in the universe is:

200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The number of grains of sand on planet earth is, according to one calculation,  5,600 000,000,000,000,000,000.

Which means that for each grain of sand on earth, there are about 36 stars out there.

If each star has 1.6 planets, as estimated, there are about 58 planets out there for each grain of sand on our planet.

So many beaches, so much sand…

Equator and E Pluribus Unum

Our United States national debt is about $20,000,000,000,000.

The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles. Or 1,570,000,000 inches.

There are 6.14 inches to the length of a dollar bill.

So, taped end to end, it would require about 257,000,000 dollar bills, linked together, to circle the earth.

So our national debt, in dollar bills taped end to end, could circle the earth 77, 800 times.

If we wrapped each of these ribbons of bills around the earth on top of each other, and each dollar bill is 0.0043 inches thick, then the stack of circled bills would be 334 inches thick, or almost 28 feet high

Imagine an almost three story wall circling the planet, made of single dollar bills piled on each other.

Or—if we used 100 dollar bills—about 3 and a half inches high.

It’s quite chilly just a few miles above

Flying to the Core

If we stand at, or near to, the equator, our bodies and the ground below us are cruising at about 1,000 miles an hour (460 meters a second)—compared to the center of the earth—as the earth rotates.

At the same time, our planet—and ourselves—are whizzing at about 67,000 miles per hour (30 meters per second) around the sun.

And the sun and our planets are hi-tailing it around the center of our Milky Way at 490,000 miles per hour (220 kilometers per second).

Meanwhile, we are oblivious to this truth, and protected within our own little cocoon of atmospheric pressure, sunlight, potable water, fresh strawberries and instrumental guitar music.

No sign of high rises on trillions of other planets

Now think of this.

Below our feet, 3959 miles away (6,371 kilometers) is the center of the earth. That’s about the flight distance between New York and Stockholm.

The temperature of the center of the earth is between 9,000 and 13,000 degrees Fahrenheit (4,000 to 5,000 degrees Celsius). That’s about as hot as the surface of the sun.

Now look up. Some 12 miles above us (20 kilometers), the temperature is a chilly minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 51 Celsius).

Consider that. In a nearby location, roughly equivalent to the distance you pass in a few hours of flying, it’s as hot as the surface of the sun, Or, if you could drive at 60 miles per hour (96 km/hr) straight upward into the sky, in about 12 minutes you’d be as cold as gets in Yakutia in Russia.

 

In Yakutia, the temperature dropped to minus 60 degrees

The next time you get bummed out—consider that for each of the 56 planets in the universe per grain of sand on earth, we know no others that include life. Despite our national debt being incomprehensible, may of us are still eating, drinking and often watching Netflix. And despite being hurtled through inhospitable space at faster speeds than we can comprehend—constantly—we wake each morning to walk across firm ground and maybe see tree leaves ruffled by a breeze.

Before whining about your coffee not being hot enough, or the traffic jam delaying your commute, consider how fortunate we are just to exist, surrounded by the most extreme and inhospitable environments.

We live within a thin layer of the most improbable natural bounty.

Which is reason enough to be grateful.

Give a thought to our most unlikely existence

Recommended Reads.

The books listed below have nothing to do with the numbers above.

They are just good reads. All are non-fiction. They cover history, art and adventure.

A Brilliant Little Operation, by Paddy Ashdown.  This is the true story of 5 U.K. canoes dropped into the Atlantic Ocean by a submarine during the Second World War. Two canoes, each paddled by two men, eventually made it down the long Gironde estuary to the city of Bordeaux, where the paddlers used limpet mines to sink a few enemy ships. Afterwards, they escaped on foot and by train—first across France, and then into Spain and Gibraltar. [For those of you who know about our own Etalon Rouge wine—it turns out their initial escape on foot passed along the dirt road next to this vineyard, in the commune of Fours.]

Leonardo de Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. This is a fascinating review of Leonardo’s life, with a few surprises. Despite all of those designs he made of war machinery, virtually none (except one) of his contraptions was every actually constructed. Da Vinci was also a vegetarian, not a very ‘in vogue’ choice during his day in Italy.

One Summer: American – 1927, by Bill Bryson. Eminently readable, this includes the tale of how the pilot Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris—the first ever to do so. The text includes ample other fascinating diversions—including the great floods of 1927 in the U.S., the accomplishments of Herbert Hoover (and his lack of emotions), and more. I’ve just begun this, and it’s a page turner.

Thanks again for tuning in…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Don’t Know But Life Really Is A River

I’ve written a wine blog for about seven years, as well as this blog (related to publishing) for about four years. I also write about five articles, online, each month for Forbes. Truthfully, the posts are little read. I have no online guru pumping some algorithm to rake in zillions (or even thousands) of hits. No worries. But…

What is popular? What do most people want to read about?

Here is The Secret.

Beautiful spirals from a winery near Barcelona (photograph taken at Albet i Noya winery a few weeks ago) 

Which posts do the best? Which topics receive the most hits? Which headlines score most viewers? Which subjects are most favored?

The answer to this is also a Key of Life.

Simply put:

You Don’t Know.

Gorgeous evidence of the beauty of transformation (photographed recently in Barcelona)

You cannot predict in advance.

Let me emphasize that, more deeply.

You have NO IDEA. All of those publicists, publishers, online gurus, marketing wizards and experienced messiahs who promise to blow your Little Post into a Viral Stratosphere?

Nonsense.

They don’t know!

Seriously.

You never know what to expect when you visit another home

Sure, you can pay to boost online hits, and comb through huge databases to jack up your hits by a minor fraction of that total. You can opt to pay and have a jillion subscribers (although only a few hundred will actually ‘like’ your posts).

The Ancient Truth of Marketing is this:

You DON’T KNOW.

Thank goodness.

I look over my past years of running three blogs, two personal, and one for Forbes.

Everything is unexpected.

The article I thought would rage that mentioned the Prince of Monaco probably got in the hundreds of hits, while the piece about biodynamic wines racked up in the ten thousand range. The article on a bizarre day trip to obscure sections of the lesser known city of Poitiers quickly scored thousands of hits, while the article about the colorful, ancient, renowned, semi-mystical Jurad wine festival of beautiful Saint-Èmilion city turned out to be a virtual flop.

Goregous festival in Saint-Émilion. But how do we interest the world, and do we even want to? (Photograph taken this fall at the Jurad Festival)

As I wrote in my book, Visual Magic:

“The successful outcomes we visualize often arrive on their own schedule. Actor Richard Gere told a Los Angeles Times reporter about the mysterious process of maintaining his high profile in the movie business. ‘The only level of career you have to maintain is to have a hit movie,’ he said. ‘Nothing more, nothing less. You can still play in the game if every once in a while you have a hit movie. But it’s not like you can pick them. That never works. It’s all by accident. There’s an alchemy out there that no one can figure out.’ “[i]

[i] Los Angeles Times, P. E6, January 6, 2003.

So, too, with life.

Life is often a feast when you least expect it (this photo was taken at the Albet i Noya winery outside of Barcelona)

I visualize and believe and pray and often this leads to munificence and benevolence and rich beauties in life. But, often and unpredictably, life shifts in directions our haughty egos can never predict. This is the beauty of life.

The era of my life most charmed, beautiful and rich with jewels of experience and fortune, that made me feel as though I lived in a dream while my thoughts transformed uncannily into sweet reality, were my volunteer years in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa. And yet these were followed, at times, by heartache and pain and a wondering—why can’t I go back?

The appearance of bliss changes every day (this photograph was taken this summer near Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, France)

This is a truth I learned:

Life is fluid. When we cling to situations, beliefs, memories, or ideas as being ‘ideal’ or ‘pivotal’ or ‘bedrock,’ we are likely to be shocked when that state of affairs, that mindset, that paradigm, that reality, that state of governance, that code of ethics, that canon of belief, that trope of manners, that code of morals, shifts.

We cling to the past because it is comforting. Secure. Known.

Yet life changes. Reality alters.

Unless we are prepared, occasionally, to drift with those changes, we will ourselves turn obsolete.

This is not a question of being conservative or liberal, because the shape of those very definitions also morphs.

Lake Columbia, Canada (photograph taken back in 2001)

I wrote about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.

In Chapter 34, Birthplace of Montana, I wrote:

“The truck radiator boiled over south of Fort Benton, and I pulled into a rest stop near a cluster of hay bales. There I stood at the edge of a semicircular rimrock wall hundreds of feet above river and plains. Below, the Missouri River curved like a rope, carving a path parallel to this cliff. It seemed as much a presence as a river. I envied the farmer who lived below and woke each dawn to this vista of cliffs ringed by muscular water.

The Yellowstone River (photograph taken during my trip in 2001)

The vista below reminded me of Alan Watts’ words from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity. He told how life is a state of flux and that wanting fixed security—stasis—is to desire that which is not a part of life. When we try to stake ourselves and our egos to a secure shore, we often find that the river of life drifts away, inflicting us with a sense of unease that makes us yearn for even more security.

‘It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in the universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity,’ he wrote. ‘If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness in which we feel insecure.’

His words were inspiring. I believed that by maintaining optimism and flexibility, the future would unfold in a way both benign and prosperous.

Street Art in Barcelona, Spain

The day felt suddenly easy. I moved away from the cliff and breathed deep beneath a mackerel sky. Uncertain of what lay ahead I was willing to roam and learn. For a rare moment in life both hands stayed loose of certainty while the hours swelled with the rich bliss of knowing that nothing stays secure. There is no predicting where the river of life will carry us.”

Amen.

***

Thanks again for tuning in. I write this blog and another (vinoexpressions.com) and also write for various publications (shown below). I appreciate your visit to this site and hope you will continue checking out Roundwood Press.

Also, unless otherwise noted, all images shown on this blog are my own photographs.

 

Facing the Unknown

 

A bend in the road

Just as we inhale, then exhale, there are times in life when we need to exert effort, and times when we need to relax. There are times to work, and times to play.

This is like pushing a car out of a ditch. You don’t just push the car, you rock it back and forth until the time comes for one mighty heave (preferably from several people at once) that slips the vehicle out of the ditch and onto the road.

It is by working together with the rhythms of nature, and the rhythms of people, objects and situations, that we minimize effort and maximize results.

Once we understand the naturalness of such rhythms in life, and tune into them, our own lives can become more balanced, healthier, and better attuned to our surroundings as well as to other people.

Quite the flow

We are surrounded by systems that ignore this. The linear, barely interrupted office work day and 50-week work year are unnatural remnants of the Industrial Revolution, in which squeezing labor out of subordinates was adopted as a cultural norm. Humans perform best when they focus on a mental task for 4 to 6 hours in the morning, then switch gears to physical activity, then work mentally again later. The Latin culture understands this with the concept of the siesta, where the body and mind work and rest in accordance with soaring and waning daily temperatures. This also respects the human craving for variety.

These oscillating rhythms of life can also apply to times when we stay in control, and times when we surrender.

Sometimes we plan out a route with perfect precision. And sometimes events occur along perhaps that same journey where we lose control. Rather than fight uncontrollable events, it can be prudent to surrender. There is economy and efficiency in the fabric of reality that we need to give into at times—in order to achieve often far more than we originally planned, or to attain levels of peace not previously anticipated.

Here is an excerpt from the book I’m now re-reading now titled “Lost Horizon,” written by James Hilton and first published in 1933.

Here is the background: A group of four Europeans being evacuated from Baskul in Afghanistan to Peshawar in British India (now Pakistan) find themselves on a plane that has been hijacked, and which (after a re-fueling) crash lands in the high peaks of northwest Tibet. There they are found by a group of locals who take them on a mountain trek back to their home, a locale named Shangri-La. Together with the locals, these passengers hike through the mountains for hours—wet, cold, tired and confused. One passenger (Mallinson) speaks with another passenger named Conway—the protagonist of the story.

Photo of the Himalayas…taken years ago when flying to Bhutan

The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? What are we going to do?”

Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”

“You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.”

“Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”

[Hilton, James. Lost Horizon: A Novel (p. 43). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.]

The rest of the story, which I’ll not reveal, is about finding a paradise—and learning to enjoy it there and then.

Monks in Bhutan

The point is not to wait for desired events to plop into your lap. But once we realize there are rhythms in life we must sometimes surrender to, our own situations can become more colorful, vibrant and rewarding.

Many situations in life that I fought against ended up providing situations for the better. The pain of a relationship breakup? The hate of a course you needed to study? The fear of moving to a different location?

In retrospect, fighting against the tide of circumstances can be a waste of time and energy. That does not mean you should just give up—but realize when you have no control, and wait until a situation plays out.

Sometimes you should just let events unfold.

This may even lead to prosperity, as Shakespeare understood when he wrote Julius Caesar. In this play Brutus speaks to Cassius, saying:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

…On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

 

Crazy Numbers, Big Thinking, and God

I recently read a riveting book titled Future Crimes: Everything is Connected. Everyone is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It—by Marc Goodman. It is a well-researched, well-written tale of how hacking is, and will, impact the world in which we live. However, aside from fascinating tales of hacking, here are a few pieces of information which relate to scale and size that are quite astounding.

An internet address for every atom…this open ocean of the Maldives must have a few trillion

  • The number of internet addresses available (related to Internet Protocol Version 4, or IPv4) was established in 1981. It provided about 4.3 billion network addresses – ‘each one representing a different connected device.’ But we are now running out of addresses. So IPv6 was formed. It can handle 2 to the power of 128 connections. How many is that? Imagine that each grain of sand on all the beaches in the world were each given 1 trillion addresses. That’s how many. Or, if every atom on our planet were given a unique address, we would still have enough ‘left to do another 100+ earths.’ So when the ‘internet of things’ becomes a dominant reality, every piece of furniture in your home, every non-perishable item you own (actually, probably perishable also), can have multiple individual addresses. The establishment of IPv6 embodied thinking big and thinking far ahead.
  • A Harvard professor named George Church has concluded that, once we start storing electronic data using DNA rather than silicon chips (within the basic biology of cells) we could store the entire quantity of digital data generated by humankind in one year in—get this—about four grams of DNA. That would weigh about the same as eight paperclips (in contrast, the Utah Data Center—which now stores data and processes data also, includes about 1.5 million square feet of data storage space.)

If this far reaching, big thinking snags your attention, here is more.

The beauty of biology may include data storage capabilities – a scene near Bourg, Bordeaux, France

I recently came across a series of notes I took long ago during the Boston Book Festival in October of 2011. In a panel titled ‘Frontiers of Science,’ Lisa Randall—a physicist working with CERN laboratories in Switzerland (and author of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, which I am currently reading) said: “Atoms are supposed to be indivisible and unchanging. But we’ve found them because they are changeable and divisible.”

A look at infinity in the Hunter Valley of Australia

Later, at a panel titled ‘Learning Learning’—Nicholas Negroponte spoke. This man was the first investor in Wired Magazine and a proponent of creating $100 laptop computers to be provided to huge quantities of people throughout the world. During this conference he said, “There are roughly 100 million kids who don’t go to first grade, because there is none.”

(Later on, he also said: “Reading is new to the brain. It’s not something we do naturally.”)

Organic beauty

Consider these statements. Do they share a commonality?

To consider creating a vast amount of internet addresses, to consider storing data in biological cells instead of on chips, to consider breaking mental and mathematical models regarding the structure of atoms, to consider delivering $100 laptops to millions of humans all over the planet—these are all thought processes that require shifting our viewpoint of the world.

They require changing our paradigm.

Reality depends on your viewpoint

Years ago I wrote about an article that mentioned a geographical researcher and explorer who changed the dominant model of how we regard the way that continents move on our planet. He essentially defined the basis of the theory of plate tectonics, which explains how continents shift over time.

Yet his original theory was vehemently attacked by by so called ‘professionals’ —later proved to be very wrong.

Only by stepping away from traditional viewpoints can true visionaries envision ways to transform our world—potentially for the better.

The article that I wrote years ago about the folly of clinging to what is established is here—in Columbia Magazine.

The Wild West

Which brings us to a final and most entertaining story regarding large numbers, a mountain excursion to Tibet and, well, God.

When I was ten or 12 years old we were in southern Spain in the town of Nerja, where my parents owned a home. On the rooftop porch of this house during a starlit evening our American friend Scott told a story. He recalled a tale by the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

Published in 1953 and titled The Nine Billion Names of God, this story is only nine pages long. I suggest you Google and read it.

Being uncertain of the copyright status, I have provided only an indirect link.

Amen

A story about a few computer programmers making a starlit mountain pony trek in the Himalayas may be fictitious, but it could be even less bizarre than our own reality. The point being? Keeping an open mind is a useful tool not only to survive, but to thrive.

Ever changing reality

^^^

Although Roundwood Press includes ebooks and print books, we lack the marketing capability for my new cookbook—The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion. We are negotiating with a few publishers.

If you are a publisher interested in this project, please get in touch.

The video below provides a 3 minute overview.

What Is Success? A Few Observations…

What is success?

There are many definitions. For me, the ability to have control over time is critical—to be able to work where I want, when I want, and to do whatever I want is key, as well as to be financially solvent and to have peace of mind.

Often, contentment is simply the absence of strife.

I’ve not yet gotten there.

But, am working on it. More appropriately – cultivating it.

Internally.

For decades I’ve ingested the wisdom of self-help books, and they have been inspiring in various ways.

Here are a few lessons learned from experience during past decades.

  • An open mind and a positive attitude are key—they form about 80% of the magical juice that will allow the fabric of reality to bend to your desires.
  • There come moments in life when situations and circumstances fall into place. Pay attention to those times, and why they harmonize with your own desires.

  • Sometimes your key to success is revealed by where your enemies lie. Whether you like it or not, whether or not you are honest, tolerant and humble, there come times in life when others rabidly dislike you—through no fault of your own. You will have done nothing wrong to bring their animosity into your life. They detest you merely because you exist. Perhaps it is your very equanimity they dislike. Or your situation or status. Regardless, pay attention, and do not be afraid. For they can be like dye-markers indicating the direction you must journey toward to reach your desired situation. They are beams of light indicating the very signal strengths that, until then, you may have been unaware of possessing. They can be the springboards off which you can leap into new, bolder, newer directions. As Napoleon Hill wrote in his book The Law of Success: “Don’t be afraid of a little opposition. Remember that the “Kite” of Success generally rises AGAINST the wine of Adversity—not with it!”

  • At other times, the direction to success may be pointed to by ‘angels’ – those who wish you well. The most ludicrously beneficial advice may arrive, unexpectedly, from that individual you previously considered ludicrous. That strange dude with the twee scarf, and the drooping handlebar mustache? He may whisper advice leading to your personal fortune. On this point, trust me.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of. Be prudent in your selection of how many possessions you want in life.

  • No situation remains the same. You take a job, learn who the key supervisors are, and then, one-by-one, they will leave or be replaced and just when you learn the ropes, the rigging changes. This can provide frustration or opportunity. All situations and power structures alter with time. Often our desires arrive in life, apparently unbidden, by a few mere natural changes in circumstance.
  • Discipline—in work, exercise and thinking—is a muscle that thrives on exercise. Still, allow yourself a bit of latitude. After all, we only live once.

  • Don’t be too concerned with what other people think of you. They are usually too busy thinking of what groceries to buy tonight, or where the next gas station is to fill up their fuel tank.
  • When life throws you in a direction several times, pay attention. I once re-visited the town of Atchison in Kansas, and locked my car keys in the car THREE times in the space of two hours (police and locksmiths came to the rescue). I then slowed down to consider this bizarre situation. Perhaps, I realized, before leaving town on that day trip, I should call a friend who lived there, and who I had promised to contact. I did so. We met, had dinner and both appreciated the reunion. The car key scenario, thankfully, made me re-evaluate the selfish desire to rush out of town without fulfilling a promise made months earlier. Another time I spent six hours hitchhiking in one direction in rural Malawi, Africa. No rides. I crossed the road, hitchhiked in the other direction and got a ride within minutes (there were about the same number of cars moving in both directions). I went home, and realized that I truly had not wanted to make that planned trip to Mount Mulanje that day anyhow, and that not getting a ride worked best. This happened repeatedly in that country: whenever I truly did not want to go somewhere, cars and buses broke down or thunderstorms closed in and those journeys ceased prematurely. Whenever I truly did want to get somewhere, and cultivated a calm confidence in eventual arrival, travel opportunities appeared in abundant, often bizarre ways.

  • Move away from people who hassle you or give you a hard time or consider you their punching bag of sorts or their bemused object of perpetual competitive zeal. Breathe deep, walk into the sunshine of relief and be grateful for simply having taken yourself away from a situation you no longer deserve, one you have decided you will simply no longer tolerate.

  • Sometimes a simple single action can make an incredibly powerful difference. When cross-country skiing with a brother in Colorado while in college, my hands became painfully cold from wearing wet mittens. This pain pushed all sorts of unrelated psychological anguish into thoughts. I suddenly felt out of control. I thought my backpack was probably packed in a sloppy way, criticized myself for not having a girlfriend at the time and for getting poor grades in studying engineering and having clothes that never fit….My brother, meanwhile, pulled out an extra pair of dry wool mittens and passed them over. Once I put these on, all other worries in the world vanished. Life once again felt good. Sometimes implementing a single positive action can eliminate a dozen unnecessary worries in ways unpredictable. As an ancient eastern saying goes: When the mind is troubled, the multiplicity of life increases; when the mind has found peace, that multiplicity goes away.

  • Success? Consider what you want. Take moves, or a move, in that direction daily. Focus on the big picture. Have faith. Disregard distractions that clutter clarity.

Thanks for checking in.

I hope you will follow my Forbes posts by clicking here and pressing ‘Follow,’ or my wine blog by clicking here. And THANK YOU to all new recent followers on Twitter

Finally, a few book recommendations:

Future Crimes, by Marc Goodman – amazing stories of how cybercrime has become huge business.

The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansy – recommended by a friend; the Basque people of Spain? Their history is cryptic, their culture singular and their cuisine outstanding…who are these people? Fascinating.

Have a superb May!

 

Powerful Lessons From Mr. Twain and Mr. Wouk

Here are a few quick stories about connections with writers, and lessons learned.

img_0124

My great-grandmother Patty traveled with Mark Twain to the Caribbean, as well—apparently—to a few other locales. She was his ‘traveling companion’—though the depth of that relationship remains unknown. Perhaps as a form of thanks, Twain gave her a large black and white photograph of himself—white haired and stately. He signed it: “Be good Patty, and you will be lonely.” My parents bequeathed this framed, signed image to me when they passed away. It’s in good custody at the moment. Sometimes I have to remember Twain’s advice.

I was born in the Virgin Islands on the island of Saint Thomas. A neighbor of ours was the author Herman Wouk (“The Winds of War,” “The Caine Mutiny”). I am told a cameo figure of a Chicago businessman (which my father was) is portrayed in Wouk’s subsequent book set in the Caribbean—’Don’t Stop the Carnival.’ I have to read this book to learn more.

img_2039-1

When I subsequently spent years growing up in Ireland as a boy, our neighbor was an 80+ year old Australian chap who golfed with my father. He had flown a canvas sopwith camel biplane during World War One, landed in a Belgian field where he found his hand spun propellor would not spin again. He ditched the plane by setting it alight, then spent the next 10 weeks escaping detection from German occupiers before crossing the border—illegally at night. During this episode he faced a pistol/bayonet confrontation (which he won). When he returned to England as a hero, King George held a private audience with him to learn the details. Fifteen years later he wrote a bestselling book about the experience. It’s a riveting read. I recently hired lawyers in London to track down the surviving relatives (which they did—to Asia and Latin America) so that I could buy the copyright and re-publish the work. They agreed. (Next step: to source crowdfunding to move this endeavor forward.)

I never met Mark Twain, of course, or Herman Wouk. I only learned later that our neighbor in Ireland had been a best selling author.

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Recently I considered all three characters, their writings, and their effects on changing the world.

Why?

Mark Twain (which is a nautical term which he adopted as a pseudonym; his real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens) wrote about his time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Learning to pilot the river—navigating eddies, turns and shallows—was a challenge that kept his mind energized, hungry, focused. Yet after he learned to navigate those challenges with ease—he wrote about how the river no longer interested him.

This is a lesson of value: once we master tasks we set ourselves at, we will be ready to move on. Why is this important? Because we should consider not only upcoming challenges, but what comes after they are achieved.

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Wouk’s lesson was more subtle. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi years ago I read and enjoyed a few of his books (which my parents had mailed to me): The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. One evening while I visited the capital city of Lilongwe, the Peace Corps nurse invited a few of us to her house in the evening to watch a mini-series adaptation of The Winds of War. I went with my fellow volunteer, a Californian named Sam Abbey, and watched a few episodes. The book came alive on screen, and suddenly I heard the rather posh voice of a young British woman named Pamela Tudsbury—a huge character in the book. Yet associated with Pamela and a story of romance, there was a plot twist that was unexpected and refreshing.

So, too, with life: sometimes it will blow us away by twisting unexpectedly. The lesson? Set a course, but be prepared to change when forces of nature require adaptation.

From our World War One aviator pilot friend, I was reminded how strangely serendipity can plop into life. Twice during his escape he fortuitously met characters who helped hide and protect him—both times at the very moment when he was on the verge of being captured, or running out of food and shelter. The lesson? Keep an open mind and a positive attitude, and the very fabric of reality may bend to assist you in ways unforseen.

Thanks for tuning in.

^  ^  ^

My latest Forbes posts are here. They include pieces about a jazz musician in Dubai, the difference between Pinot and Pineau, and the reason Loire Valley wines may well become the rage.

(The first photograph above was taken at a sailing club in Cartagena, Colombia, several years ago. The 2nd and 4th were taken during these past months here in France. The third was taken in Belgium last year—and shows the ground over which our pilot friend had to move in winter—in a horse and buggy, or by foot.)

 

 

 

 

 

37 Boxes … What We Value Most

Last December my storage unit in Albuquerque was burgled. Having been out of the country, I was unable to visit and discern the damage until this month. Beside making a mess and heisting heirloom jewelry (as well as a never-worn pair of Timberline boots – (?), the thieves left my journals, photographs, few pieces of kitchenware and books intact. They even left Waterford Crystal glasses (a present from decades ago) untouched in padded boxes. I ended up rooting through the plunder, tossing away old clothing, DOS computer manuals, golf balls (?) and then loading the remainder into a U-Haul truck and driving it to another locale. In all, there were 37 boxes – plastic containers from Wal-Mart, trunks and a few cardboard crates.

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37 boxes. Possessions of life distilled. With more time, I could have reduced that number to 5, and with a scanner and some weeks, condensed most of the balance to images and files on a single flash drive.

During a stop for a night  in the mountains, I sat on a deck at sunset, cracked open a beer in celebration of having hauled away the materials – then put on warm clothes. What to wear? I opened random boxes and pulled out options. I soon wore a pile jacket from ski patrol days in Colorado decades ago, as well as a desert camouflage floppy hat given by a brother from his weeks in Operation Desert Storm. When it grew colder there were more options for alternate head ware – the wool balaclava hat bought at an open air market in Marrakech decades ago, or the Russian cap (complete with authentic hammer and sickle badge) given as a gift by Russian friend Vladimir in the UK eight years ago.

Along with this dress change in a remote region (as starlight sparked above) came memories of times and people. With these came the forgotten realization that although things are important (wool hats do keep us warm), it is our interactions with others that is most fleeting and precious. Time flies, jobs demand attention, tasks keep us scurrying. Yet we need to stop, frequently, and laugh and enjoy the company we have. Decades ago, ski patrol friends in Colorado always seemed aways laughing, filled with levity and enjoying each moment. The friend I visited in Marrakech rode a motorcycle around rural villages and laughed and spoke Arabic to locals as he fixed their water supply windmills. Witnessing this, and his calm fluidity in an alien culture, changed my perceptions about life, and living. (One evening we made a pizza, then walked to the village stone oven to get it cooked. How unexpected and wonderful.) And Vladimir once took me on a long walk to a distant lighthouse on some shore of northeast England. When I asked him why we were going there, he said, “why not?”

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Life is filled with change and surprise and the constant realignment of perceptions regarding what is important. Whether or not I keep the contents of those 37 boxes, rooting through them was a reminder of how important it is to appreciate our situations in life. Like it or not, the flow of change incessantly alters reality. Sometimes slow, sometimes rapid. We cannot hoard our friendship or laughter for another day or more ideal conditions. Life flows. We change. If you feel the sudden urge to walk for hours to a distant and mysterious lighthouse – go for it.

Why not?

 

 

Originality, Power Morning Minutes, Fresh Bread, and Words from Gurus

First – all Roundwood Press books have been reduced to $2.99 apiece (at most) for the finale to summertime.

Second – am now reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant (2016, Penguin Random House, New York). It’s a good read, and recommended. The gist is that many individuals whose actions changed the world were normal people who held onto their day jobs even when they plunged into a business venture, uncertain of whether their notion would work or not.

Third – also recommended – a quick video where Oprah speaks to Anthony Robbins, and he gives a hint about a ten minute ritual each morning that can change your life.

Fourth – here are sage words about food, life, and respect for locality – from a powerful Scandinavian character I may soon have the fortune to meet (yes, will keep you informed):

 

Fifth – Here are some quotes  about life, and living, from some ‘success gurus.’

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The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Lifeby Deepak Chopra M.D.

“If it weren’t for the enormous effort we put into denial, repression, and doubt, each life would be a constant revelation.”

“Ever since you and I were born, we’ve had a constant stream of clues hinting at another world inside ourselves.”

“Clinging to old behavior is not an option.”

“Thus we arrive at the second spiritual secret: You are not in the world; the world is in you.”

“Violence is built into the opposition of us versus them. “They” never go away and “they” never give up. They will always fight to protect their stake in the world. As long as you and I have a separate stake in the world, the cycle of violence will remain permanent.”

“Now step into your social world. When you are with your family or friends, listen with your inner ear to what is going on. Ask yourself: Do I hear happiness? Does being with these people make me feel alive, alert? Is there an undertone of fatigue? Is this just a familiar routine, or are these people really responding to each other?”

“Just by paying attention and having a desire, you flip on the switch of creation.”

“Instead of seeking outside yourself, go to the source and realize who you are.”

“So you have to give up on the idea that you must go from A to B.”

“Everyone knows how to choose; few know how to let go. But it’s only by letting go of each experience that you make room for the next. The skill of letting go can be learned; once learned, you will enjoy living much more spontaneously.”

“The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision.”

“For most people, the strongest externals come down to what other people think because fitting in is the path of least resistance. But fitting in is like embracing inertia.”

“Now let’s reframe the situation in terms of the operating system programmed from wholeness, or one reality. You come to work to find that the company is downsizing, and the following implications begin to come into play: My deeper self created this situation. Whatever happens, there is a reason. I am surprised, but this change doesn’t affect who I am. My life is unfolding according to what is best and most evolutionary for me. I can’t lose what’s real. The externals will fall into place as they need to. Whatever happens, I can’t be hurt.”

“Nothing is random—my life is full of signs and symbols: I will look for patterns in my life. These patterns could be anywhere: in what others say to me, the way they treat me, the way I react to situations. I am weaving the tapestry of my world every day, and I need to know what design I am making.”

“Today is for long-term thinking about myself. What is my vision of life? How does that vision apply to me? I want my vision to unfold without struggle. Is that happening? If not, where am I putting up resistance? I will look at the beliefs that seem to hold me back the most. Am I depending on others instead of being responsible for my own evolution?”

“…a musician coming out of the Juilliard School of Music hears every note on the radio through a different nervous system from someone who has just graduated from M.I.T. as an electrical engineer.”

“The absolute break between life and death is an illusion.”

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Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting by Wayne W. Dyer

“If you would like to become a person who has the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled, it will be necessary for you to move to that higher plane of existence where you are a co-creator of your life.”

“You must begin by replacing your old set of truths with a belief in the existence of a higher self within you.”

“Your concept of yourself that includes any limitations can be revised by you, and only by you.”

“You simply no longer choose to form your identity on the basis of what you’ve been taught.”

“The greatest gift you were ever given was the gift of your imagination. Within your magical inner realm is the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled. Here in your imagination lies the greatest power you will ever know.”

“In order for something to get into this world where things exist and are proved, as Blake says, they must first be placed firmly into your imagination.”

“Be willing to dream, and imagine yourself becoming all that you wish to be.”

“Highly functioning self-actualized people simply never imagine what it is that they don’t wish to have as their reality.”

“Do not let your imagination be restricted to the current conditions of your life…”

“In your imagination, you can replace the thought of I will one day be in a better place, with I am already in my mind where I intend to be.”

“Remind yourself that your imagination is yours to use as you decide, and that everything you wish to manifest into your physical world must first be placed firmly in your imagination in order to grow.”

“Let go of all doubt, forget about the when.”

“It is absolutely imperative to learn how to assume, in your imagination, the feeling of already having and being what you desire.”

“You want to decide to live from the end you’re wishing for—not toward an end that others have decided for you.”

“As William Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors.” Anyone or anything trying to diminish your inner feelings with doubt is a traitor to be banished.”

“I always loved the words of Michelangelo regarding this subject: “The greater danger is not that our hopes are too high and we fail to reach them, it’s that they are too low, and we do.” ”

“My story concerning the manifestation of abundance throughout my life is never allowing anyone, no matter how persuasive, to infiltrate my imagination, which feels prosperous and able to attract unlimited abundance.”

“State your intention to live a happy, contented life…”

 

Dying to Travel – A Memorial Momento

There are reasons we choose where we live. Perhaps proximity to work, family, or historical roots.

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Yet our genetic memory knows the truth that we evolved as nomads, craving motion. Our migrating psyches aligned with taciturn and cyclical moods and whims of this planet; like rivers, scudding clouds, or streams of migrating wildebeest, we crave, yearn, and are predisposed to movement.

We fornicate, pray, and test ourselves on psychedelic drugs as a means of seeking higher planes – pleasure, aspiration to revelation from gods, or moving our minds away from what is routine and known to search for greater personal power.

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Another way of doing this is to travel. This can be like a drug taken to shift thought patterns. Like the short-term version of moving to a new location far away.

It is what we do. We cannot stop.

As South African author Laurens Van der Post wrote:

“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the faded desert spoor of his lost self; and so I came to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.”

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I filled storage areas with junk soon forgotten about, then threw it all away. Life is transient. So are possessions and tools. In college I moved into a darling Colorado home with a woman who owned ample, ornate furniture, and an arboretum of plants. I soon learned that the more we have, the more we must take care of.

Which detracts from time to explore and ramble. As Bilbo Baggins and his comrades learned from their unearthly whirlpool of forays – traipsing, paddling, battling dark and ancient magic – after being uprooted and exposed to the pregnant beauty of Earth, and this hectic adventure called Life, we can’t return to the Shire.

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Before buying that flat screen, or S class Benz, consider exploring volcanoes in Iceland, checking out a fishing community in New England, or joining some funky-ass Zen meditation project deep in the Mojave desert.

Because eventually, you will die. That’s for certain. The remnants of your psyche may then travel to luminous reaches far beyond the corner store. Before then, perhaps you’ll want to practice breaking habits by embracing new environments during this life, so that when you plunge into the next plane of ethereal abstraction, you might maintain residual memory – not of stuffy religious texts – but of embracing fiery, frenetic, changes, and having at least an occasional wild disregard for rules. You might even learn to embrace faith that all will work out, perhaps even magnificently.

As young wizard Harry Potter once said, “To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

(Not that I plan on taking that trip for quite some time, mind you.)

Many have already taken that trip. For some, we have Memorial Day. We remember sacrifices they made to ensure a better world – for all of us.

 

The Big Power of Small Changes

It’s surprising how many people cling to well known routes through life. Yet stepping out of that mode takes only a few minutes, and little effort.

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Years ago I drove across the western United States to explore how massive rivers, including the Missouri and Columbia, had been damned, channeled, and altered from their natural configuration. But first, I had to get to those rivers.

I drove from New Mexico northeast to St. Louis, in the state of Missouri, to reach the Missouri River. Along the way, I pulled off the interstate highway to explore the remnant of what had once been the famed ‘Route 66’ highway. It ran parallel to the highway, yet was scenic, quiet, and virtually devoid of traffic. I learned that is generally true of life: colorful, less-traveled, surprising, often hospitable trails often lie just yards away from the beaten track where masses of people flow. Yet few people make the effort to visit them.

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Each year, 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Some 95 percent never venture away from the known and paved trails and visitor centers – which constitute a minuscule portion of the park’s territory. The park is almost 3,500 square miles (almost 9,000 square kilometers) in size, leaving plenty of uncrowded space to explore. Yet few venture away from the presence of other humans.

Why? There is ample beauty far from parking lots, restaurants and motels.

We often find if difficult to leave what is routine, commonplace and filled with other humans – whose presence we find comforting. There’s nothing wrong with that. Yet there is merit in leaving routines, ditching norms, exposing ourselves to situations, and geographies, that are alien.

Here’s why.

Whether it’s looking at starlight from Angel Pass in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, or listening to Latin American music played in an Asian city by a band you never heard of before, the experience differs from what is known and usual. The experience causes your thinking, and awareness, to shift. It creates new neural pathways in your brain. As you explore new physical territory, the neural synapses in your cerebral cortex begin their own exploration – forging into novel brain terrain, creating new chemical/electrical pathways, and pushing you to change as a person.

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What does this have to do with books, or publishing, or reading?

Bill Gates told how he read news magazines cover to cover, not just stories he thought might be of interest. This helped expand his awareness of topics, subjects, situations and news of which he knew little.

It is the same with reading. It can change our thinking, and perspective.

For example, I’m now reading two books, both of which unexpectedly changed my understanding of the surrounding world.

Weeks ago in France, a bookseller reached under the counter and pulled out – shhhh! – a book he also published in English – about a winemaker. I bought it. This renowned winemaker – Denis Dubourdieu – told how great wine did not simply come from regions bestowed with beneficial natural geography – wonderful terroir – but also depended on the pluck, invention and hard work of winemakers. The Champagne region produces crappy wine, but changing it into sparkling wine made the region famous. The oddly humid climate of Sauternes results in the stability of a fungus, which, when harnessed by vine growers, produces beautiful sweet wines. The famed Medoc region of Bordeaux was a swamp, until being drained and cultivated and tended by hard working winemakers. And those sizzlingly tasteful Burgundies? Monks tended that land for centuries, working the soil and discerning the best plots of land, best types of grape, and best land management techniques needed to produce great wines. Reading this was a revelation: the manipulation of land and vinification methods – often through brutal physical techniques – is as essential to produce great wines as ideal geography.

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Another book I am reading is the true story of a World War One pilot whose aircraft was downed over Belgium. He hid for weeks until managing to flee this territory held by Germans. Get this – back in 1917 the occupiers had managed to construct an electric fence that ran the length of the Belgium/Netherlands border, preventing escape by Belgians. Back in an age before rural electrification delivered lights to any towns in the United States, before commercial television existed, at a time when radio was in infancy – the occupiers of Belgium furiously constructed a 125 mile, 8,000 volt, ‘Wire of Death’ to help impose their rule. The truth that such organized and efficient engineering was cleverly managed to control lives via electricity – a less than common feature in life back then – came as a surprise, and a lesson in how rapidly repressive regimes can utilize new technologies to impose their subordination.

The fact that we can often choose whether or not to move off the beaten trail, or open our minds and learn new truths about reality, is a gift. Whether we choose to use it or not, we should appreciate that it exists for many (not all) of us. If you have doubts – consider this story regarding a person who fled the totalitarian, repressive region of North Korea.

Or read this engaging, lively, brief piece of how growing up in a poor French farmhouse positively influenced a now renowned, wealthy owner of multiple restaurant chains.

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In a nice twist of serendipity, hours after writing the above words I found this appropriate TED talk video on – what makes a good TED talk. It’s about ideas push neurons to configure our world view.

So, why is it beneficial to take our thought patterns out for a walk now and then? Why should we care whether we change our world view or not? In my book The Synchronous Trail, I explained what would occur if humans began accepting a reality that no longer discarded coincidental events as necessarily being random. I wrote about the importance of changing our world view, or paradigm. I wrote –

“Most ‘truths’ that people believe in are nurtured by their societies and reflect paradigms accepted by those societies. A paradigm is powerful model that defines an angle from which humans view their world…Like a model railway scene that shows how platform, passengers, and rail cars sit in relation to each other, a paradigm provides us with a mental picture of how our reality is ordered. Throughout our lives, depending on new information that we absorb and accept, we are given opportunities to modify the fundamental paradigms we subscribe to.

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“As a child I believed that the earth was a hollow sphere and that we all lived on its inner surface. I thought our view of sunlight, clouds and starlight streamed in through a huge hole in this globe…Yet after I accepted the model of living on the earth’s exterior…this change in paradigm changed my attitude and actions. This big little truth gives paradigms such power: they can alter our behavior.

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“Societies create collective paradigms to help explain how the universe is ordered. This is convenient because it lets us avoid the homework of having to create personal models of how the universe ticks. It can also be dangerous: by accepting paradigms wholesale, we avoid questioning their validity…This impacts your behavior. Believing the earth is flat will reduce any chance of you packing bags and sallying off on some rollicking ship to explore the ocean…It would be better to stay at home and read a book.”

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There is value to exploring new and unfamiliar routes.

There are other coffee outlets beside Starbucks; big brand clothing is not always the trendiest or most economical to purchase, and the most intriguing distance between two points is not a straight line.

Take a chance. Make a change. Accept an invitation to an event you would not otherwise have considered. It could alter your thinking, your situation, and maybe your own personal trajectory through life.

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A Strange Failure in Success

Six years ago I was studying in northern England.

We took a trip south to London’s Royal Albert Hall. There, we listened to speakers from the Institute of Directors. These included the mayor of London – Boris Johnson, Olympic gold medalist (and organizer of the London 2008 Olympics) – Sebastian Coe, and computer company founder – Michael Dell. Another speaker was Tim Smitt. He had founded the Eden Project in Cornwall. This is a rainforest housed in domes inside an abandoned quarry, now one of the UK’s top ten visitor attractions. Before beginning that project, he had been a young musician.

He told his story.

“In 1981 I had the good fortune to have a Number One hit record in France called Midnight Blue. I was in a chauffeur-driven limo going down the Champs Élysées and the record was playing on the car stereo. It was the biggest selling record in French history at that time, and the record that was going to knock it off the top spot was also written by me, which was tough – and I burst into tears. I had never felt so miserable in my entire life, and I decided I would give up the music industry, because what I want to say to you is that very often people make a terrible mistake in their life, that they have a vision of what success is for them, and it is the weirdest thing that you suddenly have this success and you are wondering…Why does it not feel great? Why do I not feel changed? It felt like ashes, it felt meaningless.”

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Sometimes the light just arrives

Sometime after that, Tim began working on creating the Eden Project, which gave value to his life. He also learned to be honest with himself. As he said:

“I believe in Tinkerbell theory. I really do. If you get three or four people to believe in something, it will happen. I believe in last man standing, which is that if you have a certain amount of charm and people know you will not go away, they will eventually pay you large sums of money to do so. I also believe that you should not pretend to know what you do not know, because people are fantastically generous if you admit your ignorance, and they love pricking your bubble if you pretend to know more than you do.”

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The Blue Skies of Letting Go

Sage words from a down-to-earth visionary.

 

 

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The book Visual Magic includes similar stories about unusual ways to take control in life.