Yesterday was a “holiday” invented by Facebook called “Friends Day.” If you use Facebook, you probably have seen some auto-generated slideshows in the news feed of random photos a person has uploaded the past year.

It’s also interesting that Facebook’s data crunching found that we are all much closer than the “six degrees of separation” that you have probably heard before. Facebook claims  that each person in the world is separated from every other by “an average of three and a half other people.”

In the old version of  “six degrees,” six refers to the number of links you would have to find in your friends and acquaintances that link you to a stranger.  You would need at most five intermediaries to complete that chain.

Facebook picked today because it is an anniversary for the company, but there is a nice synchronicity that today is also the birthday of the playwright John Guare whose best-known work is Six Degrees of Separation. In that 1991 play, the character Ouisa says: “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that a) extremely comforting that we’re so close and b) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close.”

(I’ll mention here that there is a very good film version of Six Degrees of Separation with a young Will Smith, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, and Mary Beth Hurt.)

Guare did not invent the theory and the “somewhere” or someone that the character read is usually credited to the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. In wrote a short story in 1929 concerning the shrinking of the planet. Character in the story play a game of picking a famous stranger and then plot  the line between themselves and those strangers. In the story, no one needed more than five links complete the chain to the stranger.

This is not a scientific study or theory, though since then researchers have tried  to test the results and finding some validity to it.

Facebook “friends” are often people you have never met or rarely ever see. By their calculations (and the explanation on their announcement is confusing about the math on those intermediary links) we can interpret this shortening of the degrees of separation in several ways.

Does it show how connected we are via social media to people we really don’t know? Is the world (or the online social one at least) shrinking? Does it mean anything about the real world offline and relationships?

LinkedIn does this same sort of connecting game and it likes to show me that someone is a “1st” level connection or a “3rd” level one. It shows me who and what I have in common with strangers. It tries to predict “people I may know” and might want to connect with online.

But LinkedIn and Facebook make these predictive analyses only using the network’s users. Yes, in Facebook that is 1.59 billion users, but there are about 5.7 billion other people without accounts that it can’t connect me to.

If you have a Facebook account, log in and go to this Facebook blog post. It will automatically do the calculation for my average degree of separation “from everyone.” I tells me that “Ken Ronkowitz’s average degrees of separation from everyone is 3.22.  The average for U.S. users is 3.46. Mark Zuckerberg beat me a bit at 3.17 degrees of separation, but Sheryl Sandberg (facebook COO) beat both of us at 2.92 degrees of separation.

It placed my personal degree of connections at 3.2, below average but nowhere close to the reach of Sheryl Sandberg, who, the post says, is separated from everyone by only 2.92 degrees.

You may remember when the six degrees game was popularized online with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”  The Oracle of Bacon website let’s you connect Kevin to any other actor.

I haven’t look at that site for a few years, so I tried a connection search yesterday. I thought this would be a tough one: connect Kevin Bacon to Charlie Chaplin. Turns out that Chaplin was in A Countess in Hong Kong with Tippi Hedren and Bacon was in Jayne Mansfield’s Car with Tippi. Wow, only 2 degrees of separation.

I may be connected to everyone by only a small number of “degrees” but those connections seem very weak.

White matter fiber architecture of the brain. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org

Have you already given up on a new year’s resolution? Do you think you could handle an 8-week plan to rebuild your brain?

Mediation and mindfulness training has been proven again and again to not only make people feel better but more recently shown to make actual changes in your brain.

An eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

A study conducted by a Harvard affiliated team out of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) shows some tangible effects of meditation on human brain structure.

Using MRI scans, they found “massive changes” in brain gray matter. The participants didn’t just “feel better” but  showed changes in brain structure that create the associated sustained boosts in positive and relaxed feelings. On of those changes is a thickening of the cerebral cortex. That is the area responsible for attention and emotional integration.

How long did they meditate? It’s not the 5 or 10 minute break you sometimes read about, but it’s also not hours or a weekend of meditation. An average of 27 minutes of a daily practice of mindfulness exercises stimulated a significant boost in gray matter density.

That density is focused on the hippocampus which is associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. There was also decreased gray matter density in the amygdala. That might sound like a bad thing, unless you know that the amygdala is the area of the brain known to be instrumental in regulating anxiety and stress responses.

The control group of non-meditators did not have any changes occur in either region of the brain, so the simple passage of time was not a factor.

The one story that gets repeated over and over in the past 50 years is that there is far more brain plasticity – the changeable (or “plastic”) ability of the brain to change -into adulthood than was previously believed. You can teach old dogs new tricks.

 

Key West

Hemingway talking with Samuelson while fishing in Key West.

I was reading Maria Popova’s piece on Ernest Hemingway’s advice to a younger aspiring writer, Arnold Samuelson. It’s an interesting story. This 22-year-old kid jumps a freight train from Minnesota to Key West in 1932, like those tramps of the Great Depression, and heads to Key West to meet Hemingway and ask for advice. Hemingway was no Salingeresque hermit, but I wouldn’t have expected that the author would A) answer the door B) talk to this kid C) let him stay for almost a year.

Samuelson became the closest thing that Hemingway ever had to a protégé.


The book Samuelson wrote about that year, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba, must be out of print and a rare find because it’s listed on Amazon at more than $1000!  (I suggest you check your local libraries – which you can also do online.)

Maria’s article gives you a summary of some of the advice.

One thing Ernest gave Arnold is a reading list. This post is really about writer’s block, but one of my cures for that block is to read other writers. I’m happy to see that I have read most of Papa’s list, though some were not my favorites. (My reordered list with my personal favorites linked is below.)

First up is Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat,” but just get one of the Crane collections and also read “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and the novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, about life in the slums of New York City.

Three of his picks were books I read before college and enjoyed.
Dubliners by James Joyce (15 stories)
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham ( I even liked the generally-not-well-reviewed film version with Bill Murray – especially the middle Tibetan and Paris sections)
The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings (not poetry – this is his autobiographical novel about his temporary imprisonment in France during World War I. Cummings, like Hemingway, served as an ambulance driver during WWI.)

These I read as part of college courses. Some I enjoyed; some not so much.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (I prefer The Magic Mountain)
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (I prefer Crime and Punishment)
The Oxford Book of English Verse
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The American by Henry James (but I preferred the shorter, creepier The Turn of the Screw. I always felt that James – like Stephen King – needed a harsher editor who could really cut.)

And I will confess that I haven’t read (or finished, in the case of Tolstoy and Hudson) these four titles.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
Hail and Farewell by George Moore

Not on the list, but told to Samuelson, was what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though I like Twain, I may have read him too early. I liked Tom Sawyer
better than Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper better than either of the “big books.” An English teacher isn’t supposed to admit that, but those were the opinions of a 13-15 year old me and those feelings have survived even after having to reread Huck in college.

If reading a good book doesn’t unblock you, Hemingway also recommends the tried and true method of stopping, taking a break and doing something else. That often works for me.

Hemingway was pretty disciplined and never spent the whole day writing. He was a morning writer. Maybe that helped prevent the block.

“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time…  Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.”

Part of that technique is the idea you often hear of sleeping on it.

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.

A good number of author’s have offered advice on busting the block. Some of the unblocking ideas of Lewis Carroll are interesting and parallel Hemingway’s advice. For example, “… only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest…”

It’s also interesting to look at how visual artists deal with the block and how a composer deals with creative block.

Writing on my 8 blogs each week (at least one post per blog) leads to frequent blocks. My block-busting techniques for that are not so different from how I treat writer’s block when doing my poetry or an academic paper. Take a break. Do something else. Maybe read someone else’s writing in that genre or listen to music or take a walk or work in the garden. I also keep lots of drafts. For this blog, I currently have 14 drafts that range from just a title, to a reference to a book or essay, to a long draft that needs editing, research, external links and perhaps an illustration.

Do you have another technique to bust a creative blockage? I’d love to hear it in a comment here.

I read a post this past week by Parker J. Palmer called “Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods” and I was jealous of his week away. This past week has been tough and escaping to a cabin in the woods on a silent, solitary retreat sounds very good.

He took a few daily notes each day. Nothing formal. And posted them on the On Being blog. Here are a few of his notes  with my own.

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

I like this idea of a 10 o’clock “Quaker midnight.” In the woods, camping in a tent or a cabin without electricity, the night is shorter. The daylight goes and you light your little world with a fire, a candle, a flashlight, but you tend to go to bed earlier. That’s a good thing.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu: “Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

I had heard this story before. In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton did his own versions of the sayings of the most spiritual of Chinese philosophers. Chuang Tzu. He is one of the Taoist sages that transformed Indian Buddhism into a Buddhism in China which evolved into what we know by its Japanese name of Zen.

“If a man crosses a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be bad tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because someone is in the boat. Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry. If you can empty your own boat, crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you. No one will seek to harm you”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe. “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from Palmer’s book (one of many!), A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

This week I have been trying to empty my boat, but the river is crowded and people want to climb in and I don’t feel like I can leave them out there in that icy water. And people are watching me from the shore. And other boats are drifting downstream towards me as I row upstream. I don’t know if anyone is in them. I don’t shout at them, but it is frightening.

I just want to stop fighting the current and drift downstream to a place of peace and serenity.

dollarbill

I was an English major in college, so I was  trained in symbology. We never studied the symbology of money, but others have and it can teach you about its past and supposed links to occult groups.

You may have read some fiction that connects secret occult societies, such as the freemasons, with the United States government, and that occult symbols found their way into use on our money.

The Great Seal, featured on the dollar bill, was approved by Congress on 20 June 1782. It appeared on the dollar bill in 1935. The shining eye in the triangle is a common Masonic symbol.

I visited the The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, and they guide showed us Freemason President George Washington wearing his Masonic apron with the All Seeing Eye on it.

That eye is an old symbol that can be traced back all the way back to Egyptian mythology and the Eye of Horus. It also appears in Buddhism, where Buddha is also referred to as the “Eye of the World.”

In modern free masonry,  this symbol represents the all-seeing eye of God and is a reminder that a Mason’s thoughts and deeds are always observed by God.

The phrase “Annuit Coeptis” (above the pyramid) means “He [God] has favored our undertaking.” At the base of the pyramid are the Roman numerals (MDCCLXXVI) which gives us the number 1776, the year of American independence. The phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum” means “New Order of the Ages.” On the pyramid are 13 steps which most likely represents the United States original 13 states.

I am not a student of free masonry. I’m also not a believer in conspiracies in general. But many people are and in our time people have discovered that folding a U.S. $20 bill a couple of different ways produces images that combined with a belief in conspiracies all fit together. Those bill foldings seem to produce a burning World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So, did the Founding Fathers know about what would happen in 2001? Actually, the current U.S. $20 bill was redesigned in September 1998. Does it show, with a ew folds, a burning Pentagon on one side and the World Trade Center, surrounded by smoke, on the other side?

conspiracies.net/the-twin-towers-on-money-conspiracy-theory/

You can find many conspiracies and refutations of the $20 bill conspiracies. (See snopes.com and allbrevard.net) and there are similar ones for the 5-dollar bill (Pentagon before the attacks) and 10-dollar bill (folded it shows the Twin Towers on fire).

Can you really see on the 50-dollar bill the WTC tower collapsing?

And what about additional folding that produces the name Osama?

 

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