When I taught in a secondary school, I always had a rotating series of quotations on my classroom walls. Many were quite serious: “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” – Herman Hesse
Some were humorous: “Every place is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
Some quotes were somewhere in between: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
I even quoted myself: “Bladder control is a sign of maturity” and “When the mothership lands, know who your true friends are.”

Students would sometimes ask about a quote, and I would use them in lessons. On some rare and happy occasions, a student would connect a quote to something we were doing in class.

One quote that students usually thought was “stupid” was:

“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

It is a quote from Blaise Pascal who can be described as both a mathematician and a mystic. He was born in Clermont, France in 1623. I told students that Blaise was homeschooled because his father, a mathematician, believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. My students found this to be sound thinking.

They were in lesser agreement on that approach when they learned that his home life was less fun and games and more geometric problems which he was told to work out using lengths of sticks in his backyard.

The method seemed to work. At 12, he showed his father that he had discovered that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father invited him to join in his discussions with other mathematicians. He published an article on the geometric properties of cones at 16, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

TaylorBut what about Cleopatra’s nose? I always assumed that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but there are very few images or descriptions of her.

In my mind, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra (1963). That nose looks, like the rest of Liz, quite beautiful.

But it seems that power rather than beauty was the real appeal of Cleopatra.

coin

“The Lover’s Coin” a bronze showing Cleopatra (left) and Marc Antony.

She is described as being quite thin and quite small (about four feet tall). Julius Caesar was accused of pedophilia when she at around age 18 visited him in Rome. She was also depicted as having quite a big nose. But Cleo was  proud of her large nose because it demonstrated her pure Macedonia blood (she was not Egyptian) as a descendant of Alexander the Great.

Pascal had a good-sized nose himself, so maybe he identified with Cleo. But what did that odd quote mean?

I college, I was assigned to read some of Pascal’s writings in a philosophy course. The idea that stuck with me was that if you change one thing, you change everything. If you decide to go to a different college, or marry a different person, everything after changes. But even if you change something that seems less significant – whether to skip work today, the route you take driving, your nose or Cleopatra’s nose – other things will change. Every choice changes the consequences.

That kind of thinking moves easily into discussions of fate, destiny, free will and religion. Pascal’s family was not religious and he was not raised with religious teachings. By chance (if you believe in that concept), he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal.

The newly converted Pascal had no problem with these new beliefs and science. He continued working on scientific experiments. He showed that a vacuum could exist in nature. He invented the mathematics of probability.

He had his religious beliefs, but he wasn’t a blindly devoted believer.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when
they do it from religious conviction.”

But then, in 1654, he experienced a “night of fire.” He had a divine vision. It changed his life and he decided to forget the world and everything except for God.

He left Paris the following year and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus.

He started to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity. He never completed the book. The notes he had made were posthumously published as Pensées (Thoughts).

What I recall most clearly from that book is his “wager.”

“God is or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Let us weigh the gain and the lose in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two changes. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, lose nothing. Wager then without any hesitation that He is”

If God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him. But if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him.It is logical to believe.

In his writing, the “heart” is what experiences God, and not reason. The famous quote of his on that:

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…
We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

These are far larger questions than my quotations on the wall ever answered. Then again, they were meant to provoke questions more than provide answers. Pascal said that “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

Midsummer's Eve

Midsummer’s Eve Bonfire on Skagen’s Beach by P.S. Krøyer

Is it midsummer already? Why, it seems like we just started summer this past week.  Yes, we did just pass the summer solstice. But Midsummer, also known as St John’s Day and Litha, is a day or the period of time centered upon the summer solstice. In most Northern European celebrations, the event takes place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures.

Today is St. John’s Day, so we can celebrate Midsummer today too. The Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St John the Baptist, and the observance of St John’s Day begins the evening before, known as St John’s Eve.

European midsummer celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. In the Southern Hemisphere (mostly in Brazil, Argentina and Australia), this imported European celebration would be more appropriately called “Midwinter.”

Midsummer is also sometimes referred to by some Neopagans as Litha, the fire festival.  Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southward again. Some believed that witches were also on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.

 

My sons gave me a Fitbit for Christmas in 2015 and I have tried to hit the recommended 10,000 steps a day. That’s the number that has always been recommended. I don’t hit that number most days. I seem to average out at about 6000. That’s better than nothing but not enough. But now it seems even 10,000 steps isn’t “enough.”

The best thing about having one of these fitness trackers is that it makes you mindful of your inactivity. On lousy winter days when I stayed in the house and worked on the computer, I would log less than 2000 steps.

Now, on the Fitbit blog they discuss a recent study  that found that employees who sit the most tend to have higher BMIs, bigger waistlines, and higher cholesterol than those who moved more. That is not a shocking result. I could have told you that and you wouldn’t have to give me a grant. The researchers also found that those who were hitting about 15,000 steps (roughly seven miles) a day had normal BMIs and waistlines and no heightened risk of heart disease.

But 15,000 steps – 7 miles?

I wouldn’t label myself as “sedentary” but I certainly spend too much time in front of screens – computers and TV.  I don’t need a fancy tracker to tell me that.

The suggestion is to increase your steps by 1,000 then 2,000 a day for a week or two and continue until you get to 15,000.

Part of the problem for me is boredom. I have never been able to do the gym thing. Exercise on machines totally bores me. And when it comes to  steps… I love walking, but I like walking in the woods or at least in a park. I do that whenever I can, but I also have been walking around the workplace and around my neighborhood.

The suggested ways to increase your steps are always things like squeezing in a couple of 10 to 15-minute walks and walking everywhere within a one-mile radius instead of using the car. Of course, the walk to the coffee shop probably isn’t “cardio” unless you are really walking fast.

10, 000 steps still has multiple health benefits, especially if you make the 10K at a fast pace. You need to determine the number that’s right for you.

 

The Summer Solstice for 2017 in the Northern Hemisphere happened here at 12:24 AM EDT today, Wednesday, June 21.  Did you miss it?

I was still awake, but I didn’t feel anything odd. Due to those manmade time zones, it happened yesterday Tuesday, June 20, at 9:24 PM on the other coast. And it is only the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

In any case, the Sun reached its northernmost point from the equator.

Solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop). It did seem to earlier observers that the Sun appeared to stop at this time and then again to announce the winter solstitium.

In ancient Egypt, this solstice marked the start of the new year. They watched for the rising of the star Sirius which occurs around this time and it coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River.

The halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice was on May 1. That day is known as May Day or Beltane and it marked the beginning of summer for the ancient Celts. It was a day for dance and song to celebrate that the sown fields were starting to sprout.

This is the day with the most hours of sunlight during the whole year – even if it is rainy and cloudy where you are reading this. Here in Paradelle, dawn broke today at 3:18 A.M., the Sun rose at 5:25 A.M. and it won’t set until 8:32 P.M. giving us 15:06 hours of sunlight.

If we were on Mercury, which has practically no tilt relative to the plane of its orbit, we wouldn’t experience any true seasons. Bummer. If we were on Uranus, which is tilted by almost 98 degrees, the seasons would last 21 years. Also a bummer.

If I lived in Sweden, it would be traditional to celebrate this day by eating the first strawberries of the season. Since we just passed the Strawberry Full Moon, and since strawberries never go out of season in Paradelle in this age of supply chain eternal summer, I’ll have some strawberries myself today.

 

castle

It’s 1962 and America has lost WWII. The east is the Greater Nazi Reich and the west is the Japanese Pacific States.

In The Man in the High Castle, a novel by Philip K. Dick,  this is the alternate history of the world. The United States and the Allied forces lost the war. This was the novel that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction.

He was better known before that novel became a TV series for his fiction that was adapted for films, such as the two film Blade Runner films that are based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  That novel, set in 2021, portrays a world where another World War has killed millions and moved much of mankind off-planet. Because so many species became extinct on Earth, people cherish living creatures,  but the less expensive alternatives are very realistic “simulacra” of  horses, birds, cats – and also humans. On Mars, these androids are common and so well made to be indistinguishable from true humans.

On Earth, there is fear about what these artificial humans might do and the government has banned them. Many of them go into hiding, some live among human beings, undetected. The novels’s protagonist, Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in the film adaptation), is one of the officially sanctioned bounty hunters who find rogue androids and “retire” them.

Dick’s fiction approached and crossed the lines of popular science fiction, the serious novel of ideas, and the reality of his time and now our present and future.

The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963 and is one of my favorites of his novels, but Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) published 36 science fiction novels and 121 short stories, so there is plenty of his work to read – and to still be adapted.

Castle has a “novel within the novel” structure and so there is an alternate history within this alternate history. That internal novel is titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the character Hawthorne Abendsen. (Minor Spoiler: Hawthorne is the man in the high castle) In this version the Allies defeat the Axis but not in the same ways or with the same results as the actual historical outcome. The Bible verse “The grasshopper shall be a burden” (Ecclesiastes 12:5) is supposed to be the title’s inspiration.

In season two of the Amazon TV series version, they play off the novel and the films that the “Man in the High Castle” has released that show the alternative history where the United States defeated the Nazis and Japan.  Of course, the Germans have tried to destroy all the copies of the film. In Dick’s novel plotline, the Grasshopper book is banned in the occupied U.S., but widely read in the Pacific, and its publication is legal in the neutral countries.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy tells of  President Roosevelt surviving an assassination attempt but not trying for a third term. The next President, Rexford Tugwell, pulls the Pacific fleet out of Pearl Harbor, saving it from Japanese attack. When the U.S. enters WWII, it is a well-equipped naval power. In this version, Italy reneges on its membership in the Axis Powers and betrays them.  At the end of the war, the Nazi leaders—including Adolf Hitler—are tried for their war crimes.

Philip K. Dick (PKD) said the main inspiration for writing The Man in the High Castle was the novel Bring the Jubilee, a 1953 novel by Ward Moore of an alternate nineteenth-century U.S. wherein the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War.

The Man in the High Castle became a television series in 2015 produced by Amazon Studios that is somewhat loosely based on the 1962 novel. There have been two seasons with a third forthcoming. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch the series free. If not, some video from the series is available on YouTube that gives you a sense of how the series has progressed.

I know that the idea and images of the series turn off some people. My wife gave up on watching it with me. (She was creeped out right away by the version of “Edelweiss” used as the theme song.) In a 1976 interview with Philip Dick , he said he had planned to write a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but couldn’t make any real progress because he was too disturbed by his research for the two boks and he could not mentally bear “to go back and read about Nazis again.”

He regarded the published novel as intentionally having an open ending that could segue into a sequel . He even suggested that perhaps the sequel might be a collaboration with another author:. Perhaps, the Amazon series would be to his liking.

The other books that he acknowledged inspired and disturbed him when writing the novel include The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962), The Goebbels Diaries (1948), and Foxes of the Desert (1960). He also acknowledged the influence of the 1950 translation of the ancient classic I Ching by Richard Wilhelm. That text is not only read and used by characters in his novel, but was used in its divination way by Dick himself to make decisions about the plot of The Man in the High Castle.

Two chapters of the sequel were published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. They touch on the Nazis using time-travel visits to a parallel world in which they lost the war, but stealing nuclear weapons from that world to bring back to their reality.

Dick said that his 1967 The Ganymede Takeover began as a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but evolved into a new unrelated story. Some portions were used in VALIS, published in 1985, three years after Dick’s death.

Philip K. Dick’s later work turned toward deeply personal, metaphysical questions concerning the nature of God.

Eleven of his novels and short stories have been adapted to film, most notably Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

I believe PKD would have at least been amused by this android version of him.

I was quite charmed last year when I made my first visit to Prague in the Czech Republic. I had in my mind a Romanticized version of the city and its famed café culture. In my imagination, it was people sipping coffee on sidewalk table and talking about art and literature. When my wife and I went for coffee and dessert at the Café Imperial, it was certainly much grander than anything I had imagined.

We did find those little cafés too, so I was able to embrace my Romantic version of the city. There is also the well-documented role of  the coffeehouse in the Age of Enlightenment. These informal gatherings of people played an important role in innovation in politics, science, literature and religion.

Next year, I hope to visit the Café de Flore which is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris. Located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, it is known for its history of serving intellectual clientele. At one time, those tables overheard conversations from existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre,  writer Albert Camus and artist Pablo Picasso.

In science, breakthroughs seem to rarely come from just one person working alone. Innovation and collaboration usually sit at the table together. We are currently in a time when, at least in American politics, collaboration seems nonexistent.

This notion is what caught my attention in an interview I heard with Steven Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From.

He writes about how “stacked platforms” of ideas that allow other people to build on them.  This way of ideas coming together from pieces borrowed from another field or another person and remixing feels very much like what has arisen in our digital age.

One example he gives is the 1981 record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne. It is an innovative album for that time in its use of samples well before the practice became mainstream. Eno was inspired by the varied voices and music and advertising on New York AM radio which was so different from the straightforward BBC radio he grew up with in England. He thought about repurposing all that talk into music.

We call that “decontextualizing” now – in this case a sound or words taken out of context and put in a new place. But this borrowing and remixing also occurs with ideas in culture, science and technology.

Unfortunately, ideas are not always free to connect with each other. Things like copyright and intellectual property law get in the way. We often silo innovators in proprietary labs or departments and discourage the exchange of ideas.

I didn’t know that Ben Franklin had a Club of Honest Whigs that would meet at the London Coffeehouse, when he was in England and they would hang out and exchange ideas.

Johnson describes these as “liquid networks” – not so much for the coffee, but for the fluidity in the conversation. These informal networks work because they are made up of different kinds of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity is not just necessary as a biological concept but as an intellectual one.

The Internet was built on ideas stacked on top of ideas. A whole lot of code and ideas are underneath this post. At its best, when I write online I am connecting, if only virtually, with other writers, artists and thinkers, and connecting literally through hyperlinks to those ideas.

I know there are “Internet cafés,” but what about Internet as a café?

 

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Too many t-shirts? Maybe. On guard duty. Or watching for the return of the two who matter. #Hokie puppy Pepper considers the possibilities Ah yes - that's much of social media.  #socialmedia The backyard Tiger Lilies are almost always in sync with the solstice. Unfortunately, the deer ate every bud or bloom in the front of the house. Something to celebrate, or warning about time spent on social media?

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