Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.



Look at all the pretty clouds . . .

Evergreen . . .

Greens and browns . . .

Emergency orange . . .

Source of the dust . . .

Wetlands . . .

Parking . . .

Mondrian? . . .

Hmm . . . Anhydrous ammonia, a colorless gas with pungent, suffocating fumes, is used as an agricultural fertilizer and industrial refrigerant.

When handled improperly, anhydrous ammonia can be immediately dangerous to life or health. As liquid anhydrous ammonia is released from its container into the air, it expands rapidly, forming a large cloud that acts like a heavier-than-air gas for a period of time. Because the vapors hug the ground initially, the chances for humans to be exposed are greater than with other gases. Symptoms of anhydrous ammonia exposure include:

eye, nose, and throat irritation
breathing difficulty, wheezing, or chest pain
pulmonary edema, pink frothy sputum
burns, blisters and frostbite.
Exposure can be fatal at high concentrations.

Anhydrous ammonia is also a key ingredient in the production of methamphetamine (meth), an illicit activity frequently occurring in makeshift laboratories.

Misc. & Etc. . . .


The Power of Pessimism

I love to share this type of message as a positive idea. The importance of imagination and creativity. The value of stories. The need for children to learn through play. And so much more. There are many previous posts on this blog in that vein.
This isn't about what is . . . it's about what people think is. It's all imaginary anyway. That's why it's important. People only fight over imaginary things.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods
However, pretend is a two-edged sword that can be used for harm as well as good. The stories that define us often give us others to align ourselves against. And lately, one of those winning the game of pretend is our current president. Anything he imagines is instantly defined as reality for far too many people.

And with that pessimistic lead, here are three items that might seem negative on their surfaces but with a surprisingly positive twists.

I have to admit to being intrigued by the app WeCroak. Unfortunately, I have an Android and it's only available for IOS, so I can't check it out. From its website, the premise:

Find happiness by contemplating your mortality with the WeCroak app. Each day, we’ll send you five invitations at randomized times to stop and think about death. It’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily.

The WeCroak invitations come at random times and at any moment just like death. When they come, you can open the app for a quote about death from a poet, philosopher, or notable thinker.

You are encouraged to take one moment for contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation when WeCroak notifications arrive. We find that a regular practice of contemplating mortality helps spur needed change, accept what we must, let go of things that don’t matter and honor things that do.
I've shared evidence before that pessimism can actually be a good thing. This article from The Atlantic presents even more: The Power of Negative Thinking. Decades of research have found that positive thinking isn’t always so positive. In some cases, pessimists fare better than those with a sunnier disposition. . . . 

And, as a librarian and book collector, I find special solace in this: Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You'll Ever Have Time to Read. Excerpts:
[If] your book reading in no way keeps pace with your book buying, I have good news for you (and for me, I definitely fall into this category): your overstuffed library isn't a sign of failure or ignorance, it's a badge of honor. . . .

An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations - the vast quantity of things you don't know, half know, or will one day realize you're wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself towards the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning. . . .

So stop beating yourself up for buying too many books or for having a to-read list that you could never get through in three lifetimes. All those books you haven't read are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you're way ahead of the vast majority of other people.
So pretend. Just don't pretend that you're going to live forever, that everything's going to be great, or that you know more than you do.




Life Sucks the Life Out of You

Thank you, InspiroBot.


Tribal Connections

During disasters there is a net gain in well-being.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about tribalism. Tribalism, meaning small groups to identify oneself with, to define oneself by, in opposition to the anonymity of globalism. Great Britain wants to leave the European Union--well, except for some of the smaller, non-England parts, which have proposed leaving GB as a solution. Catalonia wants to leave Spain. Nationalism is on the rise. White nationalism is on the rise. People don't seem content to identify themselves with unifying conglomerations; they want to have narrow, homogeneous political entities that represent them in as pure terms as possible.

It's not just a political and societal dynamic, but all aspects of identity. Race, as with white nationalism, and gender, religion, class, etc. Professions. Interests and hobbies. Fandoms. People want to belong. They want to feel connected. They want their own, personal tribes. And, it seems to me, they are seeking ever smaller, more specifically defined tribes to fulfill those needs. We are splintering ourselves.

Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know. For me, the spark that turns an acquaintance into a friend has usually been kindled by some shared enthusiasm . . . At fifteen, I couldn't say two words about the weather or how I was doing, but I could come up with a paragraph or two about the album Charlie Parker with Strings. In high school, I made the first real friends I ever had because one of them came up to me at lunch and started talking about the Cure.
― Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot

I'm reminded by the word tribe of Seth Godin's book on marketing, We Are All Weird. When I read it, the book's subtitle was The Myth of Mass and The End of Compliance. A newer edition seems to have revised that to The Rise of Tribes and the End of Normal, which is a better indication of the contents, in my mind. His thesis is that the future--well, present, really--of marketing is to stop trying to appeal to everyone and instead focus on the specific tribe that really identifies with what you have to offer. A few quotes from it:
This is a manifesto about the end of the mass market. About the end of mass politics, mass production, mass retailing, and even mass education.


My ulterior motive in bringing you this manifesto has little to do with helping you sell more stuff and more to do with allowing (all of us) to embrace the freedom we have. The freedom to choose. The freedom to choose to be weird.


The challenge of your future is to do productive and useful work for and by and with the tribe that cares about you. To find and assemble the tribe, to earn their trust, to take them where they want and need to go.


The reason that people are walking away from mass is not so that they can buy more stuff. Material goods and commerce are not the goal, they are merely a consequence. The goal is connection.
The goal is connection. Hold onto that thought.

The impetus for this post is my reading of the book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Here is my short review followed by extensive quotes:
During disasters there is a net gain in well-being.
Absolutely fascinating.

A brief, deeply researched book that expands on an article Junger wrote, it examines the evidence that people seem to feel more meaning and contentment during times of catastrophe and war than during ordinary times. Junger's contention is that this is so because it's in these moments people feel most connected to each other. The barriers and classifications that keep us apart in standard society are gone, and we become freer to identify with each other and work together with common purpose, which makes us happier. Whether we know it or not, people want tribes to belong to. Junger makes his case clearly and strongly--though leaves room for a companion volume exploring the implications of the conclusion and what we should do with the information.

It has me thinking.

More from Junger:
Self-determination theory . . . holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered "intrinsic" to human happiness and far outweigh "extrinsic" values such as beauty, money, and status.

Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are.


Fritz's theory was that modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized human experience, and that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating. Disasters, he proposed, create a "community of sufferers" that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that, Fritz felt, is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.


What catastrophes seem to do--sometimes in the span of a few minutes--is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.


If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does. But in addition to all the destruction and loss of life, war also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them.


"For the first time in [our] lives . . . we were in a tribal sort of situation where we could help each other without fear. . . . There were fifteen men to a gun. You had fifteen guys who for the first time in their lives were not living in a competitive society. We had no hopes of becoming officers. I liked that feeling very much . . . It was the absence of competition and boundaries and all those phony standards that created that thing I loved about the Army."

Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another, and that closeness can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to.


There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one's way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don't yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. . . .

Two of the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense. . . .  The earliest and most basic definition of community--of tribe--would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend. A society that doesn't offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn't a society in any tribal sense of the word; it's just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.


It's hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country--a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It's complete madness . . .

We live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about--depending on their views--the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It's a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except now it's applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse. Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.

The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the dispute between liberals and conservatives, and it's a dangerous waste of time because they're both right. The perennial conservative concern about high taxes supporting a nonworking "underclass" has entirely legitimate roots in our evolutionary past and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Early hominids lived a precarious existence where freeloaders were a direct threat to survival, and so they developed an exceedingly acute sense of whether they were being taken advantage of by members of their own group. But by the same token, one of the hallmarks of early human society was the emergence of a culture of compassion that cared for the ill, the elderly, the wounded, and the unlucky. In today's terms, that is a common liberal concern that also has to be taken into account. Those two driving forces have coexisted for hundreds of thousands of years in human society and have been duly codified in this country as a two-party political system. The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs--and, more broadly, over liberal and conservative thought--will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.
And a couple of bonus quotes that aren't key to Junger's central thesis but are nevertheless interesting little nuggets:
Without exception, men who were leaders during one period were almost completely inactive during the other; no one, it seemed, was suited to both roles. These two kinds of leaders more or less correspond to the male and female roles that emerge spontaneously in open society during catastrophes such as earthquakes or the Blitz. They reflect an ancient duality that is masked by the ease and safety of modern life but that becomes immediately apparent when disasters strike. If women aren't present to provide the empathic leadership that every group needs, certain men will do it. If men aren't present to take immediate action in an emergency, women will step in. . . . To some degree the sexes are interchangeable--meaning they can easily be substituted for one another--but gender roles aren't. Both are necessary for the healthy functioning of society, and those roles will always be filled regardless of whether both sexes are available to do it.


The warrior skills that had protected the Dine [Navajo Nation] for thousands of years were no longer relevant in this dismal new era, and people worried that those same skills would now be turned inward, against society. That strengthened their belief in what were known as skinwalkers, or yee naaldlooshii.

Skinwalkers were almost always male and wore the pelt of a sacred animal so that they could subvert the animal's powers to kill people in the community. . . .

Virtually every culture in the world has its version of the skinwalker myth. In Europe, for example, they are called were wolves (literally "man-wolf" in Old English). The myth addresses a fundamental fear in human society: that you can defend against external enemies but still remain vulnerable to one lone madman in your midst. Anglo-American culture doesn't recognize the skinwalker threat but has its own version. Starting in the early 1980s, the frequency of rampage shootings in the United States began to rise more and more rapidly until it doubled around 2006. Rampages are usually defined as attacks where people are randomly targeted and four or more are killed in one place, usually shot to death by a lone gunman. As such, those crimes conform almost exactly to the kind of threat that the Navajo seemed most to fear on the reservation: murder and mayhem committed by an individual who has rejected all social bonds and attacks people at their most vulnerable and unprepared. For modern society, that would mean not in their log hogans but in movie theaters, schools, shopping malls, places of worship, or simply walking down the street.

So where does that leave us? How can we find the connection and belonging provided by tribes without splintering ourselves into countless competing--warring--factions?

I suppose Alan Moore provided us with one option in his 1986 book Watchmen. *SPOILER ALERT* Hero Ozymandias is so worried about the prospect of global war that he hatches an elaborate scheme to unify the world against an invented alien threat, killing half the population of New York City to make it real. And it works; after unleashing his evil, he watches the nations of the world unite and cooperate.

So that's an idea.

I hope to soon read Joshua Greene's book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. I learned about it from a Mother Jones article, 6 Surprising Scientific Findings About Good and Evil. According to that article, here are the major takeaways from the book:
1. Evolution gave us morality—as a default setting - One central finding of modern morality research is that humans, like other social animals, naturally feel emotions, such as empathy and gratitude, that are crucial to group functioning. These feelings make it easy for us to be good; indeed, they’re so basic that, according to Greene’s research, cooperation seems to come naturally and automatically.

2. Gossip is our moral scorecard - We also keep tabs and enforce norms through punishment; in Moral Tribes, Greene suggests that a primary way that we do so is through gossip. . . . Thus do we impose serious costs on those who commit anti-social behavior.

3. We’re built to solve the problem of “me versus us.” We don’t know how to deal with “us versus them.” - just as we’re naturally inclined to be cooperative within our own group, we’re also inclined to distrust other groups (or worse). “In-group favoritism and ethnocentrism are human universals,” writes Greene. . . . From an evolutionary perspective, morality is built to make groups cohere, not to achieve world peace.

4. Morality varies regionally and culturally - “There are very different expectations in different places about what the terms of cooperation are,” Greene says. “About what people, especially strangers, owe each other.”

5. Your brain is not in favor of the greatest good for the greatest number.

6. Humanity may, objectively, be becoming more moral - Greene has come to the conclusion that we can only trust gut-level morality to do so much. . . . he believes that something like utilitarianism, which he defines as “maximize happiness impartially,” is the only moral approach that can work with a vast, complex world comprised of many different groups of people.

But to get there, Greene says, requires the moral version of a gut override on the part of humanity—a shift to “manual mode,” as he puts it.

The surprise, then, is that he’s actually pretty optimistic. . . .

To be more moral, then, Greene believes that we must first grasp the limits of the moral instincts that come naturally to us. That’s hard to do, but he thinks it gets collectively easier.

“There’s a bigger us that’s growing,” Greene says. “Wherever you go, there are tribal forces that oppose that larger us. But, the larger us is growing.”
We can only hope the trend he sees is larger and more powerful than the one I do. Let's hope we can use our tribes to connect and not divide.


A Galaxy of Worlds; a Galaxy of Events

Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers into it . . . They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens onto another world . . . and a library is a Milky Way of worlds. . . . all imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish.

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

Something wonderful happens to you and you instantly look back over your life and see it as a series of fortunate events stretching off into the distance like mountain peaks. Something terrible happens and your life has always been a litany of woe. The present rearranges the past. We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.

Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.

The quotes above are from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Below is what I wrote for my review:

An evocative collection of meditations that emerged from a time of crisis in Solnit's life, centered on her mother's descent into Alzheimer's and her diagnosis of and treatment for potential cancer. Solnit's writing is fluid and meandering, flowing lyrically from thought to thought, topic to topic. Themes recur frequently and range widely: life in the arctic, decaying apricots, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Che Guevara, leprosy, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism, ice, mirrors, breath, wounds, knots, and more. Central to the entire enterprise is consideration of the nature and purpose of stories, and how telling her own has helped her heal.

Less connected than the rest is a bonus . . . meditation still seems to be the best word to describe what is part story, part essay, part philosophy, part poem . . . a bonus meditation that runs one line on the bottom of each page the length of the entire book: "Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds." Less connected explicitly; encapsulating the entire enterprise thematically. It concludes:
Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. The birds sleep on, inadvertent givers. The moths fly on, enriched. We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves. Those apricots my brother brought me in three big cardboard boxes long ago, were they tears too? And this book, is it tears? Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your stories?
It is a moving and satisfying book.