THE COMMON OBSERVER UNCOMMON OBSERVATIONS

The Use of a Book

Books are useful when you have to hold open a door, when you need to press flowers, or when you just need to prop something up. But does literature always have to be useful?

classic books by flickr user allineedtosurvive

Fiction’s lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom. When Auden wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he wasn’t complaining; he was exulting. Fiction might make people more empathetic—though I’m willing to bet that the people who respond most intensely to fiction possess a higher degree of empathy to begin with. But what it does best is to do nothing particular or specialized or easily formulable at all.

Read a bit more from you Lee Siegel over at the New Yorker, might find it useful…

Would you cross the Atlantic on a sailboat?

You always leave for just one reason. To touch land again one day.

 

“Shouting: Tierra” is a short documentary that investigates the philosophical motivations that push people to sail the seas and to challenge the unknown. It is a film about the Atlantic crossing, but it is also a film about Nature and human nature. It is a film about the ocean, rather then a film about a boat or a crew.

Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan penned these words while pondering over a photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft when it was 6 billion kilometers from Earth. Out of context these words take on strange meaning,

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us.

At that distance Earth was merely a fraction of a pixel in the image set against the stark vastness of space. So steal yourself away from your personal tribulations to accept the fact that you are a speck of dust floating in sunlight. Yet also accept that the insignificance of everything about the pale blue dot we call earth is, as far as we yet know, utterly unique.

A Manifesto for the Truth

On Sunday Edward Snowden published a piece in Der Spiegel “A Manifesto for the Truth” where he argues that the United States government’s spying programs and subsequent suppression of dissent are against the public’s interest. Reasonable arguments within the public discourse continue to strengthen his position calling for at least some restraint to be shown by the government such as in this article that looks at how broadly sweeping the spying program is. However, the United States government seems unswayed by any of these rhetorical arguments for clemency. Snowden’s manifesto was written in German, but has been translated by several sources,

Snowden's eyes by flickr user Abode of Chaos

Society can only understand and control these problems through an open, respectful and informed debate. At first, some governments feeling embarrassed by the revelations of mass surveillance initiated an unprecedented campaign of persecution to suppress this debate. They intimidated journalists and criminalized publishing of the truth. At this point, the public was not yet able to evaluate the benefits of the revelations. They relied on their governments to decide correctly.

 
Today we know that this was a mistake and that such action does not serve the public interest. The debate which they wanted to prevent will now take place in countries around the world. And instead of doing harm, the societal benefits of this new public knowledge is now clear, since reforms are now proposed in the form of increased oversight and new legislation.

 

Citizens have to fight suppression of information on matters of vital public importance. To tell the truth is not a crime.

 

You can read the full translated version here. 

EN PUNTAS

This fragile dancer seems cruelly placed on knife edges, but she is persistent and has a furry. She will accomplish the perfection she desires or perhaps fulfill the perfection of whomever has placed her in such a precarious place. This is the trailer for Javier Pérez’s piece titled, “EN PUNTAS” in which a ballerina dances on a piano on knife points. It is a chilling and rigid visual performance, yet it holds a place for the possibility for kindness and softness. Riveting.

Dark Matter Eludes

Dark matter continues to be in good form and elusive as ever. Dark matter is the stuff that makes up most of the mass of the universe, but it doesn’t interact much with regular matter, if at all. Earlier this week the LUX experiment posted a paper showing their first results – the strongest constraints yet on how much dark matter doesn’t interact. At this point physicists have no direct detection at all of dark matter so no reasonable avenue of discovery is ignored. Several floors below me right now (yes, literally, as I sit in the physics building on the University of Washington campus) is a detector that is gunning at dark matter from an entirely different direction. Dark Matter’s dark horse is axions. Axions are hypothetical particles that would solve the strong CP problem in physics and they could be just the right stuff to be dark matter, that is if they exist at all.

The ADMX magnet in the ground photo courtesy of Christian BoutanThe challenge is to detect it. In principle, the task is simple. As well as feeling the strong force, axions should also interact with the electromagnetic force responsible for light and other radiation. When an axion passes through a magnetic field, it should sometimes reveal itself by turning into a photon. Given the axion’s tiny mass, the photons should be low-energy radio waves. So to hunt for axions, ADMX physicists search for radio signals of a fixed frequency emanating from a strong magnetic field.

 

In practice, the experiment requires a herculean effort. The chances that an axion will turn into a photon are tiny, so to have a shot at producing a signal, researchers must use a huge magnet. ADMX employs a 6-tonne superconducting coil a meter long and half a meter wide that produces a field 152,000 times as strong as Earth’s field. To further enhance the signal, researchers slide inside the magnet a cylindrical “resonant cavity,” in which radio waves of a specific frequency will resonate just as sound of a specific pitch resonates in an organ pipe. The cavity should amplify the production of photons 100,000-fold, and its resonant frequency can be changed by moving metal or insulating rods within it.

Read more from Science…

How do we go about

I keep coming back to this thought, how do we go about finding a meaningful life, not just a happy one?

Jumping into the sea or life, photo credit flickr user Victor Bezrukov

This begins to suggest a theory for why it is we care so much about meaning. Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time. Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future. It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside. Despite these realities, people experience happiness as something that is felt here and now, and that cannot be counted on to last. By contrast, meaning is seen as lasting, and so people might think they can establish a basis for a more lasting kind of happiness by cultivating meaning.

Read more from Roy Baumeister at Aeon Magazine…

A Day at The Park

A day at the park by kiriakakis.net

A graphic philosophical diversion asking the question of questions, should you be collecting answers or questions? It seems that the answers to the questions most worth asking aren’t available. So then what is the value of questions without answers?  See the rest of the amazing webcomic…

A day at the park by kiriakakis.net

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data

Big data sets are changing the way we approach the world around us and the culture of inquiry itself say Jacob Vanderplas, but even more problematic may be the unintended consequence that some of the most promising researchers find no place for themselves in the academic community:
Photo by flickr user  j_cadmus

In 1960, the physicist Eugene Wigner published his famous essay, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. It expounds on the surprising extent to which abstract mathematical concepts seem to hold validity in contexts far beyond those in which they were developed. After all, who would have guessed that Riemann’s 19th century studies in non-Euclidean geometry would form the basis of Einstein’s rethinking of gravitation, or that a codification of the rotation groups of abstract solids might eventually lead physicists to successfully predict the existence of the Higgs Boson?

 

Echoing this, in 2009 Google researchers Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig, and Fernando Pereira penned an article under the title The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data. In it, they describe the surprising insight that given enough data, often the choice of mathematical model stops being as important — that particularly for their task of automated language translation, “simple models and a lot of data trump more elaborate models based on less data.”

Read more…

Morpheus, Dreamer, & Lucidity

 Morpheus - Miles TodlandDreamer - Miles TodlandLucidity  - Miles Todland

Morpheus, Dreamer, and Lucidity are a tryptic series of paintings all created live at “Dream Dance” a monthly gathering at Om Culture in Seattle, Washington by local artist and friend Miles Toland. Miles works with an eclectic set of themes gathered from the modern urban landscape all the way to deep spiritual traditions. The pieces seen here were done in a single night in a dramatic and active painting flourish drawing energy from the crowd at the event. These aren’t just static pieces though. Each is created to be reactive to the lighting. You can watch a video of their interactions with light by clicking on each piece above. The pieces above are Morpheus (9/28/2013), Dreamer (3/16/2013), and Lucidity (5/18/2013). Each is 36″ x 22″ of acrylic, aerosol and paint marker on panel. I am very pleased to have been able to acquire and then lend this tryptic set to Om Culture where they will be on display for the next year or so.