THE COMMON OBSERVER UNCOMMON OBSERVATIONS

Essential Sounds: Moondog

“The only one who knows this ounce of words is just a token is he who has a ton to tell that must remain unspoken.”

Words from Moondog, “The Viking of 6th Avenue”, the enigmatic figure and blind composer. He was born as Louis Thomas Hardin in Kansas. At 16 he picked up a dynamite cap from the railroad tracks that blew up in his face; music became more than natural, it was necessity. In his late 20’s he moved to New York and apparently chose of his own volition to live on the streets where he unconventionally composed music, invented instruments, generally dressed like a viking, and busked. He steadily gained regard for his talents throughout his life. He befriended the composer of the New York Philharmonic, Artur Rodzinsk, while playing on the street in front of Carnegie Hall. He never fit in with any constrained or scripted lifestyle, but he did rub shoulders with many important cultural movers and shakers including Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Igor Stravinsky, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Glass and so on. Moondog’s music is odd poetry, street sounds, symphonic, minimalist, and sly jazz. As he said it he uses, “a slithery rhythm, in times that are not ordinary. I’m not gonna die in 4/4 time.” Moondog died in 1999. This piece “Birds Lament” is seemingly a tribute to Charlie Parker. I think when Moondog is slowed down a bit and calmed it really is essential.

For more Moondog essentials try Viking #1 or something from his very last album, New Amsterdam, and it turns out he has a forthcoming biopic film, The Viking of 6th Avenue.

The Dimensions of Art

In this posting (by yours truly) art becomes data, and then becomes art once again. Pictured above is the outline dimensions for more than 65,000 pieces of artwork held by the Tate Collection. Check out my article to see more details about this fascinating dataset.

The Dimensions of Art (If We Assume)

Coffeegraph

If you’re in LA this December, I have an assignment for you…

This art show appears to combine several of my real joys in life: coffee, people, art. I’m in no way affiliated with the show, but I’m entranced by the mere idea of it. Local coffee roasters are a sacred industry here in Seattle, one that quite literally fuels our society in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re in LA this December, pay this gallery a visit. A slow savored cup of excellent coffee is good for the soul, especially when you’re not alone.

When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-Walt Whitman

Comet ISON in the Sky

There is a new object in the sky. Comet ISON is an icy wanderer making its first and probably last last trip into the solar system from its previous home in the Oort cloud. It will graze by the Sun brilliantly and then depart. As it approaches the inner solar system, it is now inside the orbit of Earth, astronomers have been watching its outbursts of ice and volatile materials which then reflect sunlight and make the comet very bright. It is just visible to the naked eye according to some reports now.  Comet ISON has increased in brightness many times over in the last few days.Comet ISON photograph by Damian Peach.

 

We don’t know how bright it will get. Astronomers generally just don’t know as much about comets as we would like. The comet has undergone outbursts of brightening and dimming, while generally tending to get brighter as it enters in to the inner solar system ISON may become entirely disrupted or get brighter and brighter – the comet of the century. The reason for all this uncertainty is that comets and this object in particular are not well studied. But also it is that comets are not dense rocks, but rather they are loose aggregations of dust, rubble, and ices. Tidal forces and heating of the ices can literally unbind entire comets. I haven’t been able to see it for myself yet, it hasn’t been quite visible because it rises so late I think.  Currently, if you want to see comet ISON from North America look east right before dawn as it passes Mercury.

 

Here is a finding chart for comet ISON (and also for comet Lovejoy) so maybe  you can spot it soon. A pair of binocular makes it easy. Currently ISON is swinging by the bright star Spica in Virgo. To find it follow the handle of the big dipper and “arc to arcturus” as they say then follow that arc on the Spica. ISON will be the fuzzy star nearby. Who knows how bright it will be when you look up; it may or may not be visible to the naked eye (last report I read said it was at magnitude 5.5, which is on the edge of visible to the naked eye in clear dark skys). It will look like a lollipop or balloon shape because the tail. It has a central blue-green nucleus and a long narrow tail. It is also currently a full moon, the Frost moon so the sky will look lovely regardless.

ison

This is all just getting started. Comet ISON may dissentigrate at any time. It may fall apart as is grazes by the Sun around Thanksgiving day. Or it may survive and create quite the show in early and mid December after it has swung around the Sun when it will make its closest approach to Earth on December 26th. I have compiled a bunch of useful links if you are interested in learning more. Here is the comet ISON observing campaign.  Here is a reddit astro-bot that follows and tags with coordinates pictures of astronomical objects including comet ISON. Here is Sky & Telescope’s continuously updated info on ISON. Here is an interactive 3d orbital diagram of ISON’s orbit. Here is an infographic showing that NASA has over 15 assets that will observe ISON. I will update this post with any good comet finding resources I find in the upcoming weeks and if you find anything helpful please comment below. Finally, here is a little more on about what comets are:

Updates (11.24.2013) and more links:
12 Cool Facts about Comet ISON
ISON’s orbital elements, magnitude graphs, and finding charts
NASA visualization of comet ISON’s path through the solar system
animated infographic of ISON’s path through constellations

Sunday Haiku

the folds of the brain

velveteen rabbit discarded

still wiggle your toes

 

she employs rupture

techniques treating trials as lynchings

a jackal haunts her

 

Chechnya girl leave

your home burns keeping you warm

as you watch helplessly

 

Haiku contributed from Nite Rote.

THIS IS WATER

David Foster Wallace took his own life. He chose that.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

“This is water.” David Foster Wallace says. Something else he said is that learning how to think really means learning how to exercise control over how and what you think. So we might then think that either he was not able to exercise control over his own thoughts or he simply chose what most of would not. Regardless he never seemed to want to give us advice on what to choose. He offered no particular morality, religion, dogma, or vision of life after death. The only truth he offered was that you can consciously choose. Perhaps his final act serves as the ultimate bit of wisdom that his stunning literary works never could deliver.  A bold melancholy proof of the possibility of choice. If you are aware enough to give yourself the choice you can choose what your reality is and what is really important. The possibilities are present if you know how to think.

You can read an entire transcript of DFW’s This Is Water Kenyon College speech here.

What is Life?

Why, Edwin?

I ran across this interesting little “book” a few weeks ago. Based on a series of lectures by Erwin Schrödinger in the 1940’s, What is Life? is a multi-disciplinary look at the physical underpinnings of what it means to be alive.

 

The book is a curious read, filled with musings on introductory physics and biology that highlight much of the popular science of the day. Today Schrödinger is perhaps best remembered thanks to his “cat”, a descriptive paradox of a possibly ill-fated cat in a box. Like all the great scientists, of course, Schrödinger did much more than inventing unique ways of killing cats.

 

My favorite soundbite from this book comes near the end, after we’ve visited statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, and used biology to motivate a form of quantum mechanics. We’re treated to this delightful nugget by Schrödinger:

“Life feeds on negative entropy”

In other words, if the universe prefers to be chaotic and in equilibrium, then the most defining characteristic of life is the need to resist the increase of entropy. We need order, we need food. We build things, we adapt to our environment, our bodies maintain form. True disorder and chaos is deadly, yet we fight entropy every day. Entropy always wins in the end, of course.

 

What is Life? (pdf)

Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

Wade Davis speaks eloquently on why ancient wisdom matters in our modern world and how experiencing a multitude of cultures adds to our understanding of what it means to be human,

Our world is only one of many. A chance to live amongst people who have not forgotten the old ways who still feel their past in the wind and touch it in stones polished by rain and taste it in the bitter leaves of plants and just to know in our hectic lives that in the amazon jaguar shamans still journey beyond the Milky Way or in the high arctic the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning or in the Himalaya the Buddhists still pursue the breath of the dharma is really to remember the central lesson of anthropology, that is the idea: that the world we are born does not exist in some absolute sense, but it just some model of reality. And the other peoples aren’t failed attempts at being us, by definition they are unique answers to the fundamental question, what does it meant to be human and alive?

Watch the whole thing…

Sunday Haiku

the fog is tired

it lies against my window panes

evening till morning

 

if tigers sleep through

anarchy in the autumn

may we dream awake

 

Egypt is a place

where Borges could have written

quite the true story

Haiku contributed from Nite Rote.