From the Archives: Hymn to Janus

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From the archives, here’s the hymn for Janus, the two-faced god of boundaries, that I wrote back in 2007.

Hail, two-faced god, looking forward and back,
reflecting on what came, and what will be:
you stand athwart each gate and branching track,
where free will intersects with destiny.
Your open portals meant unceasing war,
and easy turned the hinge that swung them wide;
a child’s touch alone could make them gape.
Some say blood-lust flows from that open door,
but wars truly start on this human side:
atrocity, massacre, conquest, rape

begin as pleasures in mortal cunning:
doors easily pushed are harder to pull.
Hobnails clash on streets as soldiers running,
fight til feet blister and weapons grow dull.
Janus, you stand at year’s first and last gate,
seeing both what we did, and what we’ll do.
Measurer of what was, and what is now,
and what may yet come, by chance or by fate,
please watch and keep accounts of old and new,
and count up, as sand grains, Time’s constant flow.

Janus two-faced, guide us through rolling days,
and teach us to spend our few hours well —
for Time hustles, and for no mortal stays;
through far-off mists we hear that swinging bell
which your astute ear so clearly discerns.
Behind us you see karma gathering,
a flood-front of justice picking up speed.
Open our eyes to see fate’s twisting turns,
to meet crisis with planned organizing,
as strong as oak, and pliant as reed.

I’ve made some alterations to the poem, as the perceptive among you will notice, but nothing particularly major – few word changes, some alterations to the punctuation.  Not like William Carlos Williams (who, as I recall the story, once wrote to his brother, “I had an exhausting day, poetically speaking:  I took a comma out, I put it back in again.”)

I don’t do any sort of ritual on this day, other than have dinner with my lady and enjoy some fireworks. It’s not even clear that we’ll stay up until midnight, although we may.  In the meantime, I wish all of you my readers a Joyous New Year in 2012.



Shelly has a post back from December 8th about how there are 10 modern technology items that he’d like to replace with older tools.  One of the tools on his list is a thermostat.

This on is on my list too, curiously enough. Because back in early November, my house was without power for four days, and it was not only dark, but cold.  Turns out, my heat is gas, and the gas would have worked fine in my house — except that the thermostat was electric.  Neither the furnace nor the hot water heater shut down during the power outage, so they weren’t electric.  The hot water heater just worked right through the blackout.  Since the power was out, the thermostat didn’t work, and the gas heating system registered the thermostat as being off, i.e., heat wasn’t needed.  It got fairly cold in my house as a result each night for four nights.

We live in a world of tremendous complexity, and it’s important to remember that complexity is a response to extra energy in a system.  If you discover that you have corvée labor and a massive number of overseers, you wind up building pyramids or ziggurats.  If you discover you have the largest coal reserves in Europe, you build railway systems.  If you discover you have oil reserves, you build the largest industrial system in the world.  If you have both gas heat and electric, you use both to manage the heating and cooling in your house.

It turned out to be a mistake.  When one failed, the whole system failed.

Shelly asked us to consider what modern-day tools we’d like to replace with older versions.  I think there’s something to be said for learning how old tools and machines work.  I’m talking about ‘tools’ here in a very broad sense. It’s really more along the lines of ‘tools and techniques’ really, but I’m trying to find some online links that will help me achieve some goals.

So I’m deciding on a few projects I want to complete in 2012.

  1. Replace the thermostat in my house with a mechanical model.
  2. Learn to use a slide rule instead of a calculator. (buy me a slide rule!)
  3. build and learn to use an astrolabe.
  4. Work out with yoga and tai chi instead of at a gym.
  5. Write with pens and paper more using Italic handwriting instead of on a computer.
  6. Learn to make more ruler-and-compass constructions part of my regular art practice.
  7. Do a better job with my five year diary project. (I don’t have nearly enough entries from this past year; losing it for all spring and summer didn’t help).
  8. Read more (though I don’t need an app for it); watch less TV.
  9. Play more music on my own.
  10. Cook more for myself and for others.

Best of 2011 / sixty more pageviews?

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I’d love to get sixty page views on my blog today.

It was kind of a big milestone for me to get 40,000 page views this year, and surprisingly, I’m about to hit 42,000 blog views. I’d love to meet that milestone.  But it’s not fair to just give you the request, and not give you the “Best of 2011″.  So here they are: the ten most frequently read posts of 2011.

  1. Learning to draw the Tree of Life
  2. Emotional Intelligence by Peter Salovey
  3. Art of Memory
  4. The Memory Palace
  5. The horse may learn to talk…
  6. From the sewing machine: notebooks
  7. Guest Post: Stephen Downes on Fads
  8. Anti-Teacher Upsurge
  9. driven by data
  10. Middletown Collapse

It’s not a bad list.  But it’s unclear to me why some of these posts have become so popular, and others have not.  Peter Salovey? Really?  Stephen Downes I understand.  The concerns about the anti-teacher upsurge, I get.  Palace of Memory, I get.

Incidentally, I bought the book, Memorize the Faith. It’s quite interesting, and it has exactly the thing that I thought I would do myself: It has illustrations of the different parts of various rooms in a house, and it shows how they’re connected, and it builds a model palace of memory for all of the various things that you might want to memorize in Catholic doctrine.  I’m not sure I want to memorize Catholic doctrine, but I may use it as the basis of my own learning process, and the process I teach my students, for the future.  Very cool.

Inventing a Mindset for Success

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I had a one-on-one meeting with one of my peers in the design world a while back.  I shouldn’t call him a peer, really.  Coach, perhaps?  He’s a lot better at some of the actual work of design than I am, and he’s been doing it longer.   He’s really helped coach me through the design process, even as I’ve coached him to understand the metacognitive challenges of trying to teach people to reflect on what they’re learning, and how they’re learning it.

Still, neither of us is trained as a designer.  We’ve come to that role accidentally, as Accidental Creatives, and discovered:

  1. We LIKE being creative; and
  2. We are CAPABLE creatives.

We both are what IDEO, and Tom Kelley, call “T-shaped people”: we have broad wealth of knowledge and experience (that’s the top of the T), but we also have deep knowledge that is unmatched in our respective disciplines (That’s the vertical of the T).  That doesn’t mean that, as untrained designers, we don’t hit pitfalls; but being untrained designers gives us advantages that others don’t.

I’m drifting from my topic.  That’s because most design work takes place within what I like to call “the metacognitive envelope” (if I ever start a rock band, that’s our name.  You read it here first; you can’t take our name.)  When you’re in the Metacognitive Envelope, you’re so busy using so much of your brain — creativity, memory, willpower, visual processing, language processing — that you can’t at the same time observe the process your brain is going through.  It’s like licking your own elbow.  Your focus is on solving the design challenge, not on what types of thinking you’re doing, or in what order.

The vast majority of what we did was put ideas on paper.  I can’t say that all the ideas were good.  A lot of them weren’t.  I can’t say that all the ideas were bad, either, though.  Most of them, as individual ideas, were not at all important.  Some of them were only good because they were in context with other ideas of similar quality.  

The point I’m trying to make, ultimately, is that we came up with the mindset of success first.  We talked ourselves into believing there was a great solution, we could find it, and that people would be impressed with the results. The forward-leaning intent to find great results preceded the great results.

And we got great results.

I wish all my projects turned out like this.  More, I wish I had an easy way of teaching this process to my students.

Before flying

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Before flying

Originally uploaded by anselm23

My mom made me take this glass of rancid-looking pink stuff before flying yesterday. She knows I usually catch the sickness of whatever is passing through the airplane or airport on any travel day. The more airports I pass through, the worse off I feel.

Yesterday, I went from Tampa to Hartford without any difficulties. There wasn’t even any traffic on the highways. I didn’t wait in line to go through security; there were extra seats on the plane; the flight that I thought had two layovers was actually non-stop.

Immune Defense, an encomium to an elephant-headed god, and good wishes for safe travels got me through!

Geometry Problem and Awareness of Problem-Solving

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I was making something today that another blogger had written about in a private document, and three geometry problems came up in the course of making them.  The first problem was to draw a triangle inside a circle, thus:

A triangle in a circle

As maybe you my readers know, this problem generates the mandorla, which is the sideways almond shape in the middle of the geometry problem, across the triangle’s base.  The Mandorla, or double-vescia, is a shape associated with the feminine energies of the universe, and I’m told it generates a length that represents the square root of 3.

The second problem was to create a six-pointed star.  Like the previous math problem, it’s based on the ad triangulum form of geometry according to medieval theories of mathematics, and it’s again based on a square root of 3. I did it this way:

Drawing a six-pointed star

The third problem involved something which I do using a method that I learned from a brother of the lodge, which I can’t show here, because I feel it touches on my oaths and promises, even if it’s something I didn’t learn in lodge itself.

But as I worked through these geometry problems in service to a larger creative goal that whiled away a little extra time on an off-duty Friday, I couldn’t help but think on the underlying meanings of these simple processes. J.K. Rowling gave the first technical geometry problem a meaning as the Deathly Hallows — the Stone of Immortality, the Elder Wand, and the Cloak of Invisibility (though to be fair, her geometry problem is ACTUALLY the circle circumscribed by a triangle – that is, the triangle is on the outside, rather than the inside).  The second geometry problem effectively reminded those who carried it out of Judaism, of the classical (visible) planets, and the inter-relationship of male and female (the upward and downward pointing triangles of Dan Brown fame).

Even as I made the arcs with my compass and drew the lines suggested, my mind was reaching back to the process of learning these three mathematical constructions, and I realized again…

I never use algebra.

Ok, from time to time I calculate a percentage grade using that simple formula everyone learns in algebra I or Algebra I, which is simply a fraction where the percentage works out to x/100, and there’s an equal sign and another fraction, and you solve for x by cross-multiplication.

Occasionally I solve a problem algebraically, ok. Maybe.  But not often.  Nearly all of the problems I solve, I solve through some form of geometry or visualization: comparison of areas, imagining piles of money (though I’ve really screwed that up often enough), and so on.  More and more, I solve mathematical problems visually.

And I find myself wishing that more mathematics teachers recognized this, or at least that my mathematics teachers recognized it.  Because geometry has helped me to be a better artist and a better designer, and algebra hasn’t.

Is there a way to teach math that helps visual learners understand algebra better? Is there a method to teach linear thinkers how to do geometry better? And why don’t we make kids get out the old-fashioned ruler and compass (and maybe a slide rule?) more frequently?

The Hippocampus and Memory


Go read this bit about the Hippocampus and Memory at Wikipedia and then come back here.

I’ve long known about the way that the Hippocampus in London taxi cab drivers is always larger (up to 40% larger) than in regular people, because of the intense work they have to do to memorize the London street scene.  The London Knowledge is apparently the most sophisticated and complex set of information about urban navigation in the world, with most would-be taxi cab drivers sitting for the examination no fewer than 12 times after almost three years of preparation.

But this is why Palace of Memory works, of course.  If you build an artificial place in your memory that you navigate, then of course you’re hardwiring memories that you want to create artificially to the structure of a place which you’re navigating.  It doesn’t matter that you’re not ACTUALLY navigating it; it only matters that you’re navigating.  And that means that you’re making a neural map of imaginary places that contain data.  You’re building a database that involves the left and right brains and the hippocampus in storing information. The key then becomes, what information do you want to store? And what imaginary map of imaginary places do you want to store it in?

Returning to the Palace of Memory

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Just before Thanksgiving break, my students and one of my colleagues organized a little playful program for our seventh grade.  Now, our whole seventh grade is in fact about the size of some of my colleagues’ individual sections in a public school.  And we only went around once — so no kid had to memorize more than one thing per person.

You’ve played this game before, or a variant of it: So each kid was going to a Thanksgiving dinner, and each was going to bring… 

A – apple sauce; B – butternut squash; C – cheese; D – dry ice;
E – eggplant parmesan; F – feta cheese; G – ____ ;
H – Hillshire Farms meats; I – ice; J – juice ; K – kangaroo;
L – lemons; M – macaroni and cheese ; N – Neapolitan ice cream;
O – ostrich; P – partridge ; Q – quail; R – roadkill ; S – stuffing ;
T – Turkey; U – uncooked Turkey; V – vegetables; W – water;
X – xylophone-themed cupcakes; Y – yams; and Z – zebra.

OK.  Two months later, I can remember all but one item on this particular list.  You can see that I missed the item in letter G. I can remember who said feta cheese, too, and who said “hillshire farms meats”… but not who was sitting between them.

There’s a hiccup here… and it’s because the palace of memory here was awkwardly constructed, on the fly, using the combination of letters, and the people’s names.  I can tell you who said most of the items in this list, and yet there are TWO people sitting between F and H in the circle — one who opted out of the game, who I can remember, and one whom I can’t remember.  (I also know that my own memories of Thanksgiving are trying to intrude on the list — ‘gourds’ wants to fill that place, and so does ‘garnish’, but neither of those is right, of course).

This is not bad, if the goal is memory improvement.  If the goal is to retain useful and important data, though, it’s not so useful.  But it turns out that most of us carry around the ability to make an alphabetical list, as a result of all those alphabet books we read as kids.  Is there a way to adapt this to children, to teach them how to use a Palace of Memory from a very young age?  And then how do we teach them to expand the palace as they get older, to include more complex concepts like number and timeline and locations on the globe?

The ancients used a system which Frances Yates tried to reconstruct in her book, The Palace of Memory, which I’m reading and enjoying (although it’s rather dry).  And Jonathan Spence in his book, the Palace of Memory of Matteo Ricci, also tried to reconstruct what it would be like to walk around in the palace of an 16th century Jesuit priest in China.  I’ve also just learned of this book, Memorize the Faith, which use the outline of the memory palace of Thomas Aquinas to teach the Christian gospels.

It seems to me that although my library chamber is a useful place to begin to create the places and things necessary to an effective memory palace, the real value of the system has to come from having an overarching theme of framework for the structure of the memories to be held.  This suggests short scripts or training podcasts, that guide you around small sections of the room(s) at first, and then gradually fill in various details.

One thing the ancients worried about, which I think we don’t have to worry about, is imagining spaces to be static and unchanging, with nothing closer together than thirty feet or so.  I think we can closely cram things together, and we can also have movies or tape loops playing in various places in our minds…

More on this after my plane flight today, or perhaps tomorrow.  It’s on my mind how to teach kids to build an effective memory palace, and my first efforts were good, but inadequate.  Read more, research more, practice more memory-building techniques.  Of course.

Sonnet: Heron & Osprey

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A heron wades between dark mangrove isles,
while the tidal wash swirls around his thighs.
At sign unseen, he hides among thick stiles;
green leaves and dangling stalks make fine disguise.
Over there, osprey circles wide and low,
hunting fish scales gleaming below water.
How can he hover, his wings beating slow,
except by design of his Creator,
and evolution?  Those two divine plans,
one a set patten, and one, constant change,
have underwritten everything that man’s
achieved in this Earth.  In all I arrange,
I see these two in a loving tension —
pattern and motion in interaction.

Encomium: to Ganesha


An encomium is a piece of writing dedicated to, and celebrating, some person.  It’s not a form of worship, exactly, but an acknowledgement of a being’s particular excellence and dignity.  This poem is intended to be an encomium to Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles from Hinduism.  I wrote it today, inspired in part by one of the recommended posts on Jack’s blog. Jack is a new subscribed reader, and this seemed like a good way to connect my goal of being more consciously magical, and more frequently poetical.

Elephant-headed, most serene, divine,
patron of words, and intellect and art:
Ganesha obstacle-remover, deign
to break bonds, and drive barriers apart.
By noose and goad and broken tusk and sweet,
Lord of Categories, you are revered;
Your hands make oblation; your dancing feet
ride upon the mouse — your chariot, long-eared.
You put stumbling blocks before the proud
who plan out evil, and so must be checked.
But well do you love those who live out loud:
these with garlands of wonders stand bedecked.
Ganesha, grant me these marvels to share —
hurdles pulled back and a race without care.

Ok, not my best effort.  Ganesha is not one of my personal cloud of witnesses, so it may be that I’m not channeling this quite right and getting a clear sense of what he’s about or how to approach him.  I do hope it’s useful to someone, though.

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