Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Consciousness (and bonobos)

Why am I me and not someone else?  Or why am I the me now and not a younger or older me?  If subjective experience is an illusion, could I just as well be anyone else so much as I am myself?  Am I any different from anyone who at any time ever experienced the shared illusion of consciousness?  Is subjective experience of selfhood a sustained self-deception?

Due to the interconnected nature of physical reality we are all linked.  This is an evolutionary fact.  Vast domains of life on Earth are the progeny of a a single ancestral lifeform, and it may in fact be possible to trace all life back to a single organism.  The illusion, valid so far as it goes, is that we are separate.  Lines can be traced backward in time that connect us all together.  The same lines extend again forward in time.  The individuals that compose a species are extremely similar to one another.  The species of a family, such as Hominidae for example, are very much alike.  (Looking at the photo of a bonobo from a book by Frans de Waal, I see such striking similarities to humans.  For more on these animals, read Bonobo Handshake, by Vanessa Woods, or Our Inner Ape, by Frans De Waal.  PZ Myers weighs in.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wise, Ruskin, Veblen

I watched Tim Wise: On White Privilege and was reminded of a book I read five years ago: Unto This Last, by John Ruskin.  Then I encountered some interesting references to Veblen goods when I saw an interview on the Newshour with Robert Frank about his new book The Darwin Economy.  As anyone familiar with Veblen goods knows, it has similarities to sexual selection. 

Why did Tim Wise catch my attention?  Anything that dehumanizes people, via prejudice or objectification, bothers me.  Emily Nagoski gave a good definition of objectification:  decreased perceived agency.  Anything that is contrived, coerced, uncomfortable, artificial, inconvenienced, unwilling, non-consensual, non-participatory, or in any way unnatural is probably, at least in part, the result of objectification.  Not always bad, but worth the introspection to discern. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The mortal illusion?

Is there free will?  Morality?  Or even hope (in an Absurdist sense)?  Is the mind anything more than a machine?  Several prominent writers have suggested no to each of these questions.  If it hasn't already occurred, there may be some notions of "emergence" and "irreducible complexity" that will probably also be found empty and illusory.  Daniel Dennett is one writer who would agree, since he takes a deflationary approach to the hard problem of consciousness.  Opposed to this is John Searle, who is "anti-deflationary".  (Searle famously illustrated his perspective with the "Chinese Room" argument.)

Life is often characterized as having emergent properties, but if the same physical laws can be used to describe life and death equally well, where lies any fundamental distinction?  Before anyone cries foul, I am aware that there are relative truths and there are absolute truths (a Buddhist notion) and each should carry equal weight.  But wouldn't the distinction between life and death lie in the former category?  It is a notion that has served humans well throughout evolution as we struggled to survive in the forests and savannas, and now the concrete jungles.  But we know that living organisms can be reduced to "non-living" components and scaled back up again to living organisms.  Each state seamlessly emerges from and returns to the other.  Omnia mutantur, nihil interit.

If the difference between life and death is an illusion, it would be the greatest illusion of mankind.  It is certainly already the source of our greatest fears.  But Lucretius first made the point: when an organism dissolves with its body, nothing is essentially lost in any permanent sense.  To which I would add: love recognizes a common origin and destiny. 

See also: emergentism, supervenience

Witricity assisted cycling?

About a year ago I heard that Ecospeed was a great product for converting an EZ-3 recumbent trike to electric power assist.  Now Lightfoot, a recumbent cycle maker, has partnered with Ecospeed and is offering their models with Ecospeed options.  I would love to try one of these out.  Better yet, I would love to combine an Ecospeed equipped cycle with the technology developed by Witricity for unlimited electric power assist!  Why not charge electric bikes as they run along bike paths?  Although possible, for a variety of other reasons that day is probably a long way off.  Until then, this is the coolest thing I could do for my BikeE AT.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hot Sheets Episode III: Look at the scienciness!

Great new books to read:
The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers
Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker
Lying by Sam Harris
Passing Pains: Revenge, Retaliation, and Redirected Aggression in a New Light by Barash and Lipton
Also anything by Tomas Tranströmer, and perhaps a few more Nobel laureates in Literature. 

Cool TED talks:
Jae Rhim Lee: My mushroom burial suit
Marcel Dicke: Why not eat insects? (like this one maybe)
Rachel Sussman: The world's oldest living things
Viktor Frankl: Why to believe in others
Graham Hill: Why I'm a weekday vegetarian
Craig Venter unveils "synthetic life"
Charles Anderson discovers dragonflies that cross oceans
Mary Roach: 10 things you didn't know about orgasm
Robert Lang folds way-new origami
Tierney Thys swims with the giant sunfish

Media fun:
Victor Stenger mused on the implications if effects can precede causes.

What I saw on TV:
Nova: Surviving the Tsunami – an excellent account given by survivors of the tsunami
Japanland – interesting series on Japan (made me want to buy sake)

Organism fun:
Tigriopus californicus "tigger pods"
Euphorbia lactea var. Cristata "coral cactus"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

New photo blog

Stop by at Symbiosphere, a new photo blog I created to give my friends on Facebook something to look at, since I don't post anything much on Facebook as it is, but that may change since blogger's social networking abilities seem pretty limited. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Sauna Book, by Tom Johnsona and Tim Miller

This book, published in 1977, is large for a book about saunas.  Its length (partially due to including material on general construction methods that is better found elsewhere) and dated material could make this book tedious reading for impatient people such as myself.  This is the second book (see also Hollander's) that goes into length about having a plunge pool with a sauna, which the authors consider nearly indispensable.  The text could use editing for length and flow of subjects – it gives the impression of being hastily slapped together, despite being well researched.  Some of the illustrations are very good, while others are poor.  If you have access to other more recent books, such as Konya's (which is one of the best on the subject), then look around.  That said, there was a lot of good advice that is sauna specific.  The author repeats several times the importance of having the sauna door always open outward. (72, 113)  And recommends the window area in the stove room not exceed five percent of the stove room floor area. (78)  On the sauna floor, “cover the joists with exterior grade plywood... smooth side up.” (94)  He cited possible health risks of using plastic products such as “cellular or foamed polyurethane and polystyrene and its copolymers” for sauna insulation due to the high temperatures they would be exposed to on the walls or ceiling. (105)  This is a topic I have yet to confirm.  Regarding interior paneling, he recommends looking for vertical grain boards as opposed to flat grain, nicely illustrated. (108)  Galvanized or hot dipped nails go without saying as the only rational choice for interior construction. (109)  A 2x6 door is large enough (112) and an excellent illustration of how to adapt a hollow core door to the sauna and build your own window into it is shown. (117)  The author recommends using insulated electric wiring for any fixtures in the sauna. (121)  A sidebar to the text (annoyingly common in this book) describes how to cure a sauna once it is built. (122)  Platforms 30 inches wide for lying down seem over generous, but are recommended. (124)  A stove guard rail is nicely illustrated. (135)  And how to keep a tight chimney flue is described. (138) 

On the first page of this book I read “[sauna] is a cathartic experience”, an idea I had supposed was original to me, but now I see it must be more obvious than I thought.  The part of the text I paid closest attention to was that on drains.  “We have built saunas with flat concrete and wooden floors without drains and experienced no problems.  A small trap door in the floor of an elevated sauna and a driveway broom is enough to sweep most of the water out of the stoveroom, but if you have the opportunity and money to put in a drain, do so.  If your sauna is to be built of sloping ground and you are using a post foundation, your drainage problems will be minimal.  Simply build the floor with a slight pitch, drill a few 1-inch holes through it, and let the water run out onto a bed of gravel beneath the stoveroom.” (91)

The Finnish Sauna in Manitoba, by Charles M. Sutyla

As the author describes it, this is a report about the origin and development of the sauna in Manitoba and its changing social meaning.  It was published in 1977, and like “Maquiq” which I also reviewed, this is a rare book.  I found it very readable, and enjoyed the many photographs throughout.  The author's way of describing each sauna with a little background and a detailed description using accompanying photos was great.  I'll provide the example that I found most interesting.  A description of “Bill W.'s Sauna (No. 7)” begins on page 65.  Four photos and two line drawings (interior plan and layout in relationship to surrounding features) and about two and a half pages of text are devoted to its description.  [copy two photos page 70].  After reading the book I want to visit Pointe du Bois in Manitoba to see for myself what makes this a desirable community for so many Finns in Manitoba.  Among the bibliography to this book is listed “The Finnish Sauna in British Columbia” which looks like another interesting read.  

Maquiq: The Eskimo Sweat Bath, by John Maressa

This book is not one you are likely to encounter in any bookstore. It is an interesting account of the relationship of several groups of native peoples in Alaska to the sweat bath. One part I found particularly interesting is the regional use of urine in sweat bathing, a subject I have not encountered before. Human urine, a mild acid, had broad functional value, and helped to clean oily surfaces including the bodies of bathers. (200) This practice seems out of place today and I would not recommend it, but considering the available resources of the time it was an example of a resourceful strategy for survival in an environment that could be very hostile to human life. Maressa's book also contains more general statements regarding the use of the sauna in any culture or time period: “That an individual is physically relaxed after a sweat bath is easily accounted for, when one recalls the physiological up-temp that the body has previously undergone. Reversing this process (rapid cooling of the external temperature) causes relaxation of the systems and organs involved.” (69) Quoting Wendell Oswalt: “The bath has, at times, a therapeutic effect upon a tired or angry man. Baths are also taken to relieve the soreness in a limb or perhaps in an attempt to cure a head cold. There is one additional aspect of bathing which is difficult to characterise; this is the intoxicating effect of extremely hot baths.” (329) Maressa elaborates on this point: “The benefit of this “natural intoxicant” can be appreciated in two ways. Firstly, it helped to relieve an individual from the strains of a physically strenuous existence.... Secondly, since the Eskimo were not known to have any other type of intoxicant before the coming of the fur traders [is this substantiated?], the sweat bath fulfilled a comparable function and in so doing, provided a safety-valve for frustrations in this potentially depressing environment.” (330)

Steam of Life, a review

Steam of Life (viewable in entirety online, until November) was a good documentary about Finnish men sharing stories of personal loss and tragedy, it was less about sauna buildings and use.  My eyes were drawn to reading the captions most of the time preventing me from adequately scrutinizing the scenes for building details.  And there were a few interesting scenes in it.  The next day it repeated several times on another PBS station and I recorded it (the first time I saw it I had the recorder set for the wrong channel).  I counted 12 saunas featured in the film.  I list them below with the approximate time that they appeared in the film. 
  1. [1] A scene with a husband and wife in a sauna, an experience that they had shared for at least 51 years together.  She is lying down with her feet propped up on the wall.  The sauna has a dark rough wood interior and smooth lighter toned benches. 
  2. [4] A sauna used by factory workers, with four men in the camera frame. 
  3. [6] An old camper trailer sauna shared by two men at a worksite in the woods (Northern Finland?).  The trailer interior looks typical with cheap prefab panel walls, some metal. 
  4. [13] A sauna used by a reformed ex-prisoner, shared with his three boys.  A three tier bench, the bottom one slides under the second for storage.  Tile floor, and a window behind the top platform and backrest to let in indirect light,  I though this was a nice feature.  A thin red curtain pulled to the side softens the light. 
  5. [20] What looks like some large farm equipment (a columbine?) whose capacious rear has been converted to a sauna.  Only the exterior is briefly shown. 
  6. [21] What looks like an abandoned car in a field of grass.  Two boys sit nearby.  When the door opens the escaping steam proves that this has been converted to a sauna as well.
  7. [21] What looks like a telephone booth along the side of a quiet country road; a naked man sits inside the steamy interior. 
  8. [22] A sauna scene very similar to the second one (listed above).  A long bench with five old men in the frame.  This appears to be part of a large health club for senior citizens. 
  9. [22] A tile and wood sauna where a man tells the story of a bear cub he adopted, but whose true identity is not revealed until the surprising end when the bear is viewed on screen with the man, presumably in his outdoor enclosure. 
  10. [27] A sauna by the ocean or a large lake, two men, one an Afghan war veteran.  A dark wood interior with light benches, illumination comes from under the benches, the large stove has what looks like small precast bricks in place of natural stones.  Next we see them in an adjacent washing room with high windows and lots of washing tubs. 
  11. [33] The setting is similar to the third one (listed above) in the north of Finland.  Two old gold miners at a campsite along a river.  There are lots of shelters made of tarpons and a staircase that leads to the river edge.  A do-it-yourself tent sauna with many sides and of pyramidal construction.  The interior is small with a central post and the sides are braced at increments of several feet by horizontal rough sawn slabs of timber.  Aside from these, the exposed foil faced sheeting is the only other main feature of construction.  Only later, about 49 minutes into the film, at the end, do we see a clear view of the exterior of this tent sauna. 
  12. [38] A very nice sauna by a lake, made of four sided logs and bricks (surrounding the wood stove).  A blanket hangs behind the platform where two men sit.  This is the climax of the film, one of the men recalls the loss of one of his twin children and relates the experience to the other. 
The documentary ends with a song that all the men featured in the film sing, cutting to scenes of each of them singing at their location, a few other men whose scenes did not make it into the finished version are included as well.  The symbolism is clear: separate people living separate lives, but united by their similar stories.  This begins about 49 minutes into the film, which ends with a total length of about 51 minutes.  Ending the film this way seemed strange to me at first, but may not seem so odd in Finland.  If you have any interest in saunas at all, or the human experience in general, it is a good film to see.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

rhizosphere, the real Eywa

I'd like to draw attention to the rhizosphere, a term coined in 1904 by Lorenz Hiltner, one of the founders of applied soil microbiology and organic farming.  This is the close relationship between plant roots, soil, and soil organisms within the detritus of the soil ecosystem; an amazing region of trophic interactions whose abundance and diversity exceeds that of any other.  I am reminded of Avatar's Pandoran neural network (or the Norse Yggdrasil), which in turn seems inspired by the Gaia theory.  But sci-fi comparisons aside, this is an extremely rich area for study.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mother Earth, the pedosphere

Soil is a complex and dynamic substance.  Not only a support for vegetation, soils lie at the interface of numerous interactions between Earth's atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere.  What's more, soils lie at the interface of the living and non-living, biotic and abiotic, organic and inorganic, casting doubt upon the duality implied by these domains.  In healthy soil, absorbancy, storing (largest terrestrial pool of carbon), recycling and processing is high in relation to the limits set by climate.  Soil is the foundation of our home, a host to our activities, and a witness to our comings and goings.  It is ancient (but fertile), easy to destroy, and all too easy to overlook.  A thorough understanding of soils requires knowledge of many earth sciences and natural sciences.  (The two main branches of soil science are pedology and edaphology.  Pedology deals with pedogenesis, soil morphology, and soil classification, while edaphology studies the way soils influence plants, fungi, and other living things.)  E.O. Wilson's interest in microbial ecology is clearly a subject with close ties to soil science. 

Now a word on the romanticisation of agriculture and pastoral life.  Humans never wanted it, we only entered into that enterprise through necessity (source: The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn, as read in here).  Do I love the farm life?  It can be very good, but it will never compare to the beauty of raw wilderness.  The over emphasis on fertility and growth that farmers tend to have is due to their need for productive farmland and crops.  Soil doesn't need to be maximally productive, like a weight-lifter on steroids, to be healthy, it just needs to be at its natural balancing point.  Organic farmers have recognized that this balance point is higher than we tend to give it credit for.  A whole slew of back to the land, natural farming philosophies developed in the 20th century to address and repair our dysfunctional relationship with the Earth.  I would be content with a field of raspberries to pick.  The sobering reality is that soil conservation must be built into society.  It is harder to gain back once it is lost.  Aside from the use of earth moving equipment, most of our interaction with the soil is indirect.  How do we affect water runoff and drainage?  Leaf litter accumulation?  Plant diversity and growth?  Sun and shade patterns?  Soil structure and compaction?  What animals do we allow on our soil?  Questions like these are central for the soil conservationist. 

Any meditation on the transience of life would do well to include variations on the following Christian passages that identify a symbiotic relationship between man and soil:
“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  Genesis 2:7
“For dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
“All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Ecclesiastes 3:20
There are many who literally want to do, and have done this, among them Malcolm Beck (alive), and W.D. Hamilton (dead).  In a pedocentric world, perhaps the purpose of death is to return to mother earth, enrich the soil with our bodies, and allow our matter to find reanimation in another form of life.  [Update: Helen Knight's article in New Scientist explores this in more depth.]

Sauna: The Finnish Bath by H.J. Viherjuuri

This is a short and pleasant little book.  What I like most about it is the way in which the author relates the experience of taking a sauna and it's positive effects.  “The feeling of well-being which follows the cold dip is undoubtedly one of the most delightful sensations which the human body can experience.” (41)  “the most delicious moment of all... when the bath is over and one can lie naked in the fresh air outside the sauna...” (44)  “The sauna banishes psychological troubles and ill humors.  In its heat, the mind is relieved of all pressure, and recovers its true balance.  A man bowed down by worries may come out of its doors in a philosophical and even humorous frame of mind.”  (45) 

Viherjuuri recommends a distance of at least 42 inches between the top platform and the ceiling, a 20 inch minimum width of the upper tier (78) and using bands of cloth hung from the ceiling as leg supports when lying down.  He also states that aspen (poplar) makes good material for benches. (55)  A nice full page “Rules of Thumb for Bathing” is included. (68)  “Regardless of where the stove may be placed, it should have a wooden guard rail around it.” (79)  Fiberglass bats should be stapled, not glued as the adhesive could melt. (80)  Regarding the sauna stones, he recommends igneous or basalt. (83)  I have struggled with ideas for a simple and effective floor drain, Viherjuuri recommends a “floor which slopes gently down to a drain in the corner of the hot room; the floor can be scrubbed and rinsed with a minimum of trouble, and the water brushed toward the drain.” (82)  I encountered a lot of advice in this book that I recall reading from later sauna books that recycled Viherjuuri's wisdom.  He is clearly viewed as an authority in his field.

Finnish Sauna by Allan Konya

I recently finished reading “Finnish Sauna” by Allan Konya.  He pointed out:  “The sauna is the only form of bath in which both dry and damp air are present, and in which the dampness can be controlled by the bathers themselves.” (5)   “Some people consider that the pile of stones on top of the sauna stove is a relic of an altar used in pagan times and that the throwing of water over the stones was a form of sacrificial ceremony to supernatural beings.” (7)  I think this is more than a bit of a stretch, but a fun piece of lore all the same.  “On entering the hot room, bathers are enveloped at once by a delightful heat, not stifling, in no way oppressive, but rather like the protective, nurturing warmth of an incubator.” (13)  I like the analogy of a sauna to an incubator.  “It is advisable to start off with a lower temperature and increase it gradually to the required level.  This allows one's blood vessels to expand slowly and the circulation to improve.” (14)  Especially for the novice!  “Sauna and an after-sauna supper (saunapala) is a fairly common form of entertaining.” (16)

“Too low a humidity can result in the following problems: an unpleasant 'dry room' smell; the drying out of the mucous membranes of nose and throat; perspiration evaporating too quickly from the skin surface, allowing it to become too dry.” (18)  “Fresh air should ideally be drawn directly from outside and certainly not from an adjoining room where odors may be present... The correct (and traditional) position for the [venting] outlet is in the wall opposite the inlet and at least slightly above it.” (19)  An outlet area of five square inches per person is recommended.  Later on page 74 he begins describing how a flue above this outlet can improve the suction and form the updraft needed to counteract any effects of back pressure.  An illustration of a venting outlet flue inside the sauna is shown, although I might consider putting this flue outside the wall, where it won't take up any interior space.  Konya describes something called the “piston effect”:  “When water is poured on the stones, the superheated vapor expands greatly, rising quickly to the ceiling and forming a thickening blanket of loyly which pushes the air downward, forcing the heavier stale air through the outlet.  This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the 'piston effect', a term which describes the action rather well.” (19) 

On construction:  “The roof usually projected over the gable end which contained the low door – not much above chin level and with a high threshold.” (9)  Konya recommends siting the sauna such that the windows face west “as the time for to sauna is generally the evening, very often at sunset, the rays of the setting sun will stream into these rooms, helping the bathers to relax.” (31)  “Once the [sauna] room approaches a square on plan, arrangements with L-shaped benches are usually more economical, up to a size of about [7x7 feet] internally.” (33)  Regarding floor construction “Materials like linoleum, which have a characteristic smell, must be avoided at all costs.” (48)  “Benches supported only from the walls... it is better to avoid timber supports at floor level, where fungal attack is most likely to occur.  [But] wherever the benches are supported on the floor [and stabilized with connection to the walls], rubber doorstops should be screwed to the undersides of the supports with non-ferrous screws, to prevent contact between the floor and the end grain of the  timber.” (52)  “Cellular plastics... some types cannot withstand the high temperatures encountered in a sauna.” (61)  I should call the manufacturer to see if foil faced R-max foam board insulation will work in this application.  “The door... can consist of a standard solid core flush panel door, with insulating material, vapor barrier and paneling added to the inside face.  A heavy ball or roller catch keeps the door closed.  If it must be locked... a hasp and staple with padlock offers the best solution.” (73)  “To ensure sufficient draught for effective operation, the flue should, if at all possible, be not less than about 13 feet in total length.” (88) A gable roof, rather than a flat roof, would support a ceiling peak of greatest height for a tall chimney flue.  “The [chimney pipe] joints must be airtight and should be fitted with female end upward otherwise there can be difficulty with tar and condensation leaking to the outside of the pipes...”  (89)

I also enjoyed looking at "Finnish Villas and Saunas", which is a feast for the eyes. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

consciousness, a model

According to Charlie Stross, “Consciousness seems to be a mechanism for recursively modeling internal states within a body.”  Animals, such as humans, use their senses, their nervous system, to construct a model that allows them to optimize their living conditions.  Most of what the brain does is unconscious, so why isn't all of it?  Perhaps there is a survival advantage conferred by creating the artificial “recursive model” that allows a dualistic mind/body sensation of consciousness, whereby the model (the mind, conscious awareness) can have an active conversation with the machine of the body, second guessing its impulses and suggesting alternatives.  Any creature exhibiting complex behavior appears to be capable of emotions and a rich inner life, according to Jonathan Balcombe.  And the inference seems justified to me. 

By happy accident, I have had the pleasure of seeing three distinct species of salticid spiders here in Fairbanks (including Sitticus finschi and Phiddipus borealis).  These small creatures have two large eyes for binocular vision that they use to stalk their prey, a trait we share with them.  I wish I had a macro lens on my digital camera, but even without one, just a few days ago I captured the image of a spider staring back at me as I focused on him.  There is more evidence than not to suggest that he was aware of me, in some sense, just as I was aware of him.  For me, that is one of those experiences of “seeing the world in a grain of sand.” 

Philosophy is, in one sense, an attempt to “model the model”, and technology is providing us with a more direct route to do this via better sense data - by watching the degree of activity in regions of the brain with real-time brain scanning.  This brings the larger, unconscious activity that the brain engages in into the realm of conscious awareness.  And it is speculated that this could conceivably allow one to control all of one's impulses, specifically the less desirable ones.  Could this be the much sought after cure for procrastination?  Still a long way off. 

One last observation: “The Chinese room” thought experiment supposes that the man in the room exchanging symbols for symbols under the door need not have a recursive model (in Stross' sense) to do so.  But we know that such a model has evolved and, so far as we have means to detect it, we have not failed to observe it.  Call it salience, even the insects beneath our feet display it (recent studies of animals like bees and even jellyfish suggest our understanding of their behavior is far from complete).  Who is to say their model is any less vivid to them than ours is to us?  We do not know the basic unit of thought or emotion, but in a materialistic world, surely it must exist in some sense.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Albert Camus

I browsed through "100 ideas that changed the world" and at number 90 was “Existentialism Defines an Absurd Existence”.  Here's the paragraph I read on page 118: 
… But the most popular of the group [of French and German existentialists] was the saturnine Algerian-born writer Albert Camus (1913-60).  In his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," a meditation on the predicament of humans attempting to make sense of a senseless universe, he memorably expressed a central existentialist tenet: the absurd. Reflecting on the Greek figure of Sisyphus, who is condemned eternally to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again, Camus tells us that by recognizing the absurdity of his situation, Sisyphus gains at least the dignity of forthright clarity. "We must imagine Sisyphus happy," Camus famously concludes, for "being aware of one's life, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum." Camus died in the most absurd way of all - a car crash. 
We value our lives and think them important, but we also know that we will die and that time will erase all our work.  Though we long for it, we cannot create meaning or hope in a world that contains neither.  Our awareness of the paradox between our desire on the one hand and our disappointment on the other are the terms of an absurd life.  Camus states:  “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me.”  And later concludes: “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth.  They are inseparable.”  The image of a happy man devoid of hope is the mark of absurdity.  (This reminds me of the story of the monk hanging on the end of a rope above a chasm.  Above him a black mouse and a white mouse gnaw at the rope, slowly reducing its width to that of a single strand.  The monk sees a strawberry near the cliff by which he hangs, so he picks it, and eats it.)  "The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." "The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself."

Albert Camus was 46 when he died in 1960.  Three years before his death he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his writings against capital punishment (Reflections on the Guillotine, 1957).  In 1942 he published The Myth of Sisyphus, and in 1951 The Rebel, which builds upon the ideas of the earlier work.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Finnish Sauna: Design and Construction

Finnish Sauna: Design and Construction (6th revised edition, 2007), published by Rakennustieto and compiled with the assistance of 15 Finnish authors, is probably the best book about sauna construction I have read.  Unintentionally I also checked out the 2nd edition from 1995, which is oddly longer (mostly due to the later removal of several illustrations, reorganization of sections, removal of in-text advertisements, and omission of the cleaning chapter).  As all construction books should be, this one is heavily illustrated.  One spends as much time pouring over the drawings as reading the text.  The final section of the book is a photo montage of “Contemporary Finnish Saunas” that are peerless in their beauty, but largely beyond my ability or means.  I will include below passages from the text I found helpful.  As time allows I might work these into a proper blog entry, or not: 

In a good sauna, heat is conveyed symmetrically, which means that the bather feels heeat evenly from all directions and there is a balance between convecteed and radiated heat (26). 
The traditional manner is to place the window at a low elevation, whereby most of the light falls on the floor in front of the stove (42). 
In placing the light fittings and directing the light, the upper part of the sauna and the seat level of the platforms should remain in darkness, but the steps and route of access should be lit... Normal lighting is required for cleaning the sauna (87). 
Darkness is usually felt to be a pleasant aspect of the mood of the sauna (97). 
If the stove is next to the door, it should be hinged on the stove side (43). 
[The cooling area] if possible should face the setting sun and a scenic view (44).  (Yes!  Mine will.)
[Vapor insulation] overlaps must be at least 15cm wide, affixed with heat-resistant tape, and pressed against each other betwween two wood surfaces (48). 
(Pages 49 through 52 contain wall, floor and roof sections for saunas of different types.  Using their labeling scheme, I have a US2 wall, AP2 floor, and YP1 roof)
[Year round sauna] windows are usually triple glazed, three paned insulating glass with a ventilation shutter that can be opened (54). 
Spruce [Picea abies] with few knots is well suited for all surfaces in a sauna... To minimize cracks caused by drying, the boards must be sufficiently thick in relation to their width... Countersunk nails are recommended for the lining... Horizontal cladding (as opposed to vertical) is a better solution, since there will be a gap admitting air between the upright bottom battens [the boards to which the cladding is nailed] and the parts behind the lining boards [the cladding] will be ventilated... The wooden wall lining is not extended down to the floor (56).  [Red or yellow cedar is never mentioned!  The cover image appears to exemplify these recommendations.]
A waterproof surfacing material [for floors] is a plastic mat with welded seams (57).  [what does “welded seams” mean?]
(Pages 62 through 63 have diagrams of removable bench construction.)
A sturdy railing is built around the stove to prevent the bathers from falling onto it and also to serve as a footrest.  It should include a lower rail element for children.  The railing can be made of wood or steel and faced with wood (65).  [Can this be made removable for access to the stove?]
Rubber stops are nailed or screwed to the lower surface [of wooden duckboards] to facilitate drying (66). 
One of the most common problems is the presence of ferric sulphides (pyrites) which release sulphuric oxide and sulphuric acid into the ambient atmosphere when the stones become worn (78). 
The intake air of the stove room is located... to prevent draughts or cold downward draughts onto the floor (84).  [Preheating the air in the dressing room is best.]
Palsi's law: the bather must be seated with his or her whole body (including the feet) above the stove stones [in smoke saunas] (95). 

The description by Nestor of Kiev in his chronicle from 1112 supports my earlier argument that saunas are cathartic.  From page 5:  Nestor tells of hot wooden saunas, in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves.  “Without any coercion they torture themselves and in this way gain pain instead of cleanliness”, tells the chronicle. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Moral Landscape

In a world without God, where does morality come from?  Is morality a matter of opinion or a matter of fact? The rallying cry of atheists has long been “no absolutes”, which has left some people wonder:  Where does their strength of conviction to make a stand on matters of right and wrong in the world come from?  A reticency to convict others for trespassing moral law is a strength, but also a major weakness. This book is answers these questions.  According to Harris, true moral knowledge is possible, and science can illuminate an entire moral landscape. 

Reading his book was a delight, and I felt he was following in the same tradition of La Mettrie, a vanguard stating aloud what others had hitherto only mentioned in passing.  Harris' thesis that meaning, morality, and values can be reduced to facts, and thereby be objectively determined, denies moral error theory, and does not specifically endorse hedonism or utilitarianism (subjects I had recently read that primed me for his book).  Harris believes that “well-being” is a deeper notion than pleasure.  He forms his argument from many sources in science and philosophy, asserting that science is natural philosophy, or “philosophy in practice” (180).

Harris disagrees with E.O. Wilson that “morality is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.”  While morality was very likely adaptive in some sense at one point, and perhaps sexually selected for, that does not imply that it continues to fulfill this narrow function.  I was disappointed to see that while Harris mentioned Geoffrey Miller, he did not give due credit to Amotz Zahavi.  All the more a shame since Zahavi and Harris share the same concern for altruism.  (Zahavi saw altruism as a reliable fitness indicator that confers status upon and improves the reproductive chances of the individual.  Harris seems to see morality as a kind of codified version of objective altruism.)  It was interesting to learn that out group hostility and in group altruism are two sides of the same coin (101).  After reading the first few pages of Harris' latest book I felt it was a reaction to Europe's growing unease with its immigrant Muslim population.  I was reminded of French president's recent decision to make wearing burqas in public illegal.

There was considerable references made to other researchers.  I would like to read about Robert Edgerton's book Sick Societies.  And I found Adam Smith's quote about our reaction to distant tragedies very telling (58).  The description of the Dobu Islanders was of such a horribly organized society that I instantly suspected it was a “Poe”, but there is no reason to doubt that it could very well be a real society.  I instantly identified with the reasoning of a four year old about the difficulty of acting on moral decisions (71).  In the second half of the book Harris seemed to stray from his subject (only to bring the overall scope of the topic into clearer resolution no doubt).  I learned that parenting strategies that increase empathy in children are very important (99), but having children generally decreases happiness (188)!  I also learned that Harris' dislike of Francis Collins runs very deep!  I particularly liked the following quote, in which he rails against Collins while identifying the human-like qualities of animals (170):
And just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins - who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes - begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors?  What if mice show greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.)  What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.)  What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards?  (They have.)  What if dogs do too?  (Ditto.)  Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?  
I wondered at one point, that if morality is a system of thinking about and maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures (who stand in relation to specific environmental states) then does it not also follow that science can determine aesthetic values as well?  One of the criticisms of a science of morality is Hume's assertion that it is impossible to deduce “oughts” from what “is”, but I wonder what the distiction between these two really consists of, or for that matter the difference between truth and goodness.  Have we answered the question of why a science of morality is important?  Our intuitions of right and wrong are fallible (87).  Population ethics govern some of the most important decisions societies ever make (68).  What of the ethics of nuclear power?  Or of particulate air pollution?  Some of these questions bear on matters closer to home than others.  Harris identifies a few more advantages (188):
We would all be better off in a world where we devoted fewer of our resources to preparing to kill one another.  Finding clean sources of energy, cures for desease, improvements in agriculture, and new ways to facilitate human coop0eration are general goals that are obviously worth striving for.  
Now I am ready to enjoy reading Anthony Grayling's book, which is also about ethics and morality, though I gather without as much speculation on science's role in determining it.

Update: The best review I have read of this book is here and his response to critics. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hot Sheets Episode II: Work, bugs, and questions

Continuing the Hot Sheets list from the previous installment:  

3. Lines of Work Lapham's Quarterly, 2011: Spring  It is a subject that is near and dear to many people. 

4. Jurgen Otto's photostream.  Life is beautiful!  (Recently highlighted by Coyne at The remarkable courtship of the world’s most beautiful spider.) 

5. A way of categorizing questions in philosophy (I was prompted to review these by my recent skepticism of a science of morality.  Over ten years ago this brief outline was presented by a professor in a philosophy class I attended.)
Metaphysical - What are things really?
Topics: essences/appearances
Epistemological - How do I know?
Topics: experience, reason, intuition, revelation
Ontological - What do I mean?
Topics: definitions, meaning, language, what is being/existence
Axiological - What is true/beautiful/harmonious?
Topics: good/evil, subjective/objective, true/false
6. Chinese Cracked Ice Pattern.  When I first saw it several years ago in a book about Chinese architecture, I loved it.  Here's a mathematical description.  I got to thinking about these patterns when I read about "Li Symmetries" on pg. 120 of Quadrivium, a book with many illustrations from early thought in math, geometry, and music.  The short description included a reference to Alan Turing, who wrote "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis".  You can see some examples of modern application of this idea in this Wired article.  While these look like fractals, they seem somehow different.  Oddly, searching for "Li Symmetries" online turns up no results.  So where did that name come from? 

7. Kona Africabike: I like the idea, and am thinking of a test ride soon.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hollander's How to Build a Sauna

In 1979 Carlton Hollander published How To Build a Sauna.  This book has many illustrations of construction details, but only a handful of actual photographs.  In his book he attempts to cover all aspects of construction.  Hollander makes the point that a dressing room is important for the enjoyment of a sauna (33), which I agree with.  Other rooms such as a shower room, storage room, and relaxation room can be combined with either the sauna room or dressing room and do not require a separate space, though Hollander includes these in his building layouts.  The need for an easily accessible wood storage area is also mentioned and should not be overlooked when siting the sauna's location.  Hollander quotes the Finnish Building Information Institution as recommending that the stoveroom allow for 105 cubic feet per bather (36), which he describes as a very generous allowance, and certainly not an absolute.  His recommendation to cut an inch from the bottom of the stoveroom door to allow for ventilation (40) is the same as Glenn Auerbach's at Sauna Times, which makes me wonder if Glenn didn't use this book as a reference for his own sauna. 

The cold water immersion tub (43) is frequently described by Hollander, and it seems he considers it an important part of the experience.  Keeping a large tub of water from freezing throughout a Fairbanks winter is not impossible, and would make a very interesting addition.  His description of insulating the floor seems out of date and incomplete to me, and the illustration (65) he uses was not clear enough to inspire confidence in a complete novice like me.  I did like his description of the the properties and types of wood to be used in the interior paneling, treating this portion of the sauna like a piece of furniture (77).  He recommended two foot wide benches as a comfortable width (97).  No where else had I read of using pyrogallic acid for chemically staining the interior wood of the sauna (103), which is interesting but also unnecessary.  A short bibliography at the end listed four sources, all of which being older than this book undoubtedly contain dated information that I would consult only after having read some of the newer books that still await my attention. 

Hollander's book is an introduction to sauna building which filled a niche when published, and it still focuses more on the basic building than a lot of more recent books do.  For example, the illustration of a hanging post foundation (58) is very good advice.  The same basic foundation is also described in the March/April 2011 issue of Mother Earth News, attesting to the timelessness of some basic carpentry techniques.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hot Sheets Episode I: Perennial grains and moral skepticism

From Men In Black:
Dialog - [after telling J that they're going to check the "hot sheets," K buys some tabloid newspapers]
Agent J: These are the hot sheets?
Agent K: Best investigative reporting on the planet. But go ahead, read the New York Times if you want. They get lucky sometimes.
Agent J: I cannot believe you're looking for tips in the supermarket tabloids!
Agent K: Not looking for.
[tosses down a paper whose headline reads "ALIEN STOLE MY HUSBAND'S SKIN!"]
Agent K: Found.
As for myself, I turn to the most comprehensive local magazine rack, which happens to be at Barnes and Noble.  There I read two inspiring articles that are also available to read online:

1. The Big Idea: Perennial Grains National Geographic Magazine, April 2011
Agroecology is almost as glamorous as microbial ecology. Almost a year ago I read Emily Pidgeon's article  (page 47 of The Management of Natural Coastal Carbon Sinks by Laffoley and Grimsditch), about the importance of sea grasses, which play a significant and under appreciated role in carbon sequestration.  Now grains could do the same. 

2. Morality: The Final Delusion? Philosophy Now, No.82 
I was waiting for the library to get a copy of Grayling's latest book, but now I've begun reading Richard Garner's Beyond Morality, which can be downloaded for free online.  From the conclusion of his book:
This alone might make morality, in Nietzsche’s words, “the danger of dangers.” Plenty of powerful religious and political figures have insisted that their followers have a moral duty to destroy some country, or to abuse or even kill the members of some race, religion, or alternative persuasion. Our future will be much brighter if we can all stop our self-involved and combative moral posturing, develop a more realistic understanding of our conflicts of interest, and come up with ways to resolve them that are based on mutual respect and the best information we can get.
I look forward to reading the contra position to moral abolitionists such as Garner - Sam Harris' recent book The Moral Landscape presents this opposite case.  He believes that there are in fact objective values and argues for a kind of neo-utilitarianism as Coyne describes it.  But I am currently more skeptical of a science of morality than I am of moral nihilism.

Update: I paged through The Moral Landscape at the bookstore recently and saw that Harris briefly addressed J.L. Mackie (a moral error theorist).  Harris wrote: "The main criterion, therefore, is that misery and well-being not be completely random."  Well, for the human species it isn't completely random, but if I go out on a limb here and suppose we are able to have meaningful communication with other species in the future, it will soon be apparent that well-being is not as easily determined.  I think the case by case approach of moral error theorists may be more useful in this event.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Permaculture's sauna

Permaculture No. 67 Spring 2011 carries an article about how to build a sauna.  A very basic design is given, but that also means it is very affordable.  I could build two of these and probably have materials to spare (aside from the stove).  Below is a screenshot of the article from the free online preview.  One of the hippy-esque recommendations from the author is to use sheep wool as insulation in the walls instead of fiberglass.  I like natural materials, but wonder about price and performance. 

The Discipline Gradient

I recently finished reading Susan Thierman's The Discipline Gradient after I heard it was used in a local parenting class.  Being the father of two young children, I don't feel it is possible to know too much about how to be a good parent, and I am glad to have read this book.

Thierman acknowledges that every child is different and no single discipline approach will work all the time.  She makes frequent reference to different forms of discipline that have been described by child psycholgists and places them on a gradient beginning with those that rely on prevention and communication, moving on to behavior management.  Time outs, aka "boring interludes", are higher up on the discipline gradient and included among other behavior management tools.  (It sounds simple, but there really is a right and wrong way to use time outs effectively.)  Positive reinforcement is emphasized, with intrinsic reinforcement and self-discipline being the goal.

I found interesting the observation that praise should be specific, which echoes what I have long known about the importance of the feeling of self-efficacy.  From page 162 of the book:
On a more subtle level, specific praise admires the task, not the child.  Admiring the task helps the child feel confident about his abilities.  Admiring the child can build expectations that may hinder the child later... praising the task gives children feelings of accomplishment which, in turn, raise their self-esteem.  With positive self-esteem, the child feels even more confident and willing to try more new things.  
One of the best things parents can help their children learn are decision making skills.  Thierman writes: "What we can do is look toward the future and plan to encourage our children, to help them gain confidence and the skills of decision-making, problem-solving, and self-discipline."  Teach self-discipline, not obedience (218). 

Thierman's book is full of good advice to the new or experienced parent - parents should try to spend at least one hour a week alone with their child to build strong relationships, use active listening skills and I messages, and explain consequences in advance.  Always anticipate potential problems.  Parents are advised not to reward children for stopping negative behaviors, but for doing positive behaviors.  And Thierman is careful to distinguish between discipline and punishment.  Discipline aims to teach internal controls; punishment aims to control behavior.  And punishment is often accompanied by anger.  She reminds us that "every child, no matter how difficult his behavior, has positive characteristics."  Two chapters at the end of the book make a very strong case for never reacting in anger to a child.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Steam of Life

On August 2, 2011, POV will be showing Steam of Life.  Yes, I want to see it. 

Myers and Coyne on belief in God

I am late to the game, as most of this was discussed late last year by Zara and Myers, and rehashed by Grayling, Dawkins, and Coyne this month.  But I'll weigh in, or rather simply review the arguments put forth so far, on the question: “What would it take to convince us of the existence of the supernatural?”  Steve Zara wrote:
But how can we non-believers accept something as evidence when that “evidence” is supposed to point to something which is beyond logic, beyond rules? What does “evidence” even mean in such a situation? ...This astonishing complexity of God adds yet another barrier to evidence, as literally anything else is a better, more likely explanation of phenomena in the real world.
When thinking about this question yesterday, I also arrived at this conclusion.  If evidence is something you can understand, but God transcends understanding, then he also transcends evidence.  Hence, no evidence for God is possible.  But this is just a silly game of logic.  Zara continues:
The idea of evidence for miracles being taken seriously was shown to be unreasonable by David Hume centuries ago...
While Coyne sets his position as opposing that of Myers and Zara on the question of evidence for God, I think when it comes to Hume's quote they do agree.  This is the common ground they share.  Hume wrote:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
Zara and Coyne both refer to Hume as correct on this issue, Coyne wrote:
To take Hume’s view, when the probability of that evidence adducing a god exceeds the probability that it’s either a trick or due to some unexplained natural process, then I think it’s okay to provisionally accept a god. 
Coyne, defending his scientific integrity, states this is a possibility, but Zara and Myers do not.  I think it is because they take one extra step that Coyne doesn't when Zara writes, following Hume's argument to its natural conclusion "literally anything else is a better, more likely explanation of phenomena in the real world".  The possiblity of it is so remote, it has passed the vanishing point.  But can't we all be happy that we agree with Hume? 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spectacular bats

Darren Naish has written a very interesting series of blog posts on the subject of bats, and if you haven't been following them there is one picture from the series that is surely a contender for the most beautiful bat.  It is a picture of a "painted bat", Kerivoula picta

This pattern appears influenced by body temperature, like the pattern seen in Siamese cats, region of the body that are cooler have darker pigmentation.  It is notable that this is a rather detailed pattern for such a small animal as K. picta is really quite small.  Myotis hermani is also similarly patterned, apparently. And so is Lasiurus borealis, the red bat, whose small face looks like a bat version of Pikachu. 

A few months ago I speculated about the possiblity of "seabats" here.  I just learned that such creatures do exist.  From a post in the series on bats Naish writes:
The foot claws of some species - most notably the Fishing bat Myotis vivesi - are extremely impressive or totally ridiculous, depending on your opinion. In case you didn't know, this bat (unique to the coasts of the Gulf of California) fishes at sea - a pretty incredible bit of behaviour that has led some biologists to describe it as an honorary marine mammal.
Recently I also came across an old photo of a bat about to eat a frog.  Were I to title it, I'd call it "death by winged teeth":

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

3/11 before and after photos

Update:  As of 3/27/11 detailed images of the affected areas of Japan after 3/11 are now available on Google Earth. I have not included any of these here however.

The impact of the 3/11 Japan earthquake and tsunami was extensive.  Searching online and using Google Earth I was able to find a few before and after photos of the region surrounding the ceramic workshop.  While the before images contain photos of the workshop, the after images unfortunately are of regions within a mile of the workshop, but do not show the workshop and only structures and areas nearby.  Please click on the images as they link to much larger pictures with greater detail.  This workshop lies about 47 miles from Fukushima I nuclear power plant. By far, the most widely circulated image of Iwanuma after 3/11 is a picture of the coast looking toward the south with Abukuma river in the upper quarter of the picture and the tsunami rushing ashore. 

The red arrow indicates the workshop with outbuildings (white and blue roofs), this is before 3/11. 
Zooming out of the above photo, the workshop is in upper left.
This is after 3/11.  The workshop is just barely outside the left of the frame; making it clear that it was affected by the tsunami. 
Another aerial view of Abukuma river before 3/11, workshop is at far left center.

Image of Abukuma river after 3/11. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The why of goals

A fatalistic/pessimistic person might ask: "Why do any of this?"  To such a person I would reply: Not because it is needed, wanted, or deserving.  But because having goals is a part of life, I chose these over others as they seemed most appropriate.  In short I do this because, after some consideration, it seems appropriate.  In the human condition, without full knowledge or control, this may be the best conclusion, and ultimate justification, one can arrive at.  There are days when I feel like a leaf caught in the current of a mighty river.  I know how I got here, and I have an idea of where I am going, but altering my course seems more of an illusion I create for myself than a real possibility.  And though I may know where I am headed, I do not know how long it will take or if I will ever get there! 

One may still ask:  Why are these goals appropriate, and not some others?  I'd like to think I am qualified and capable of making that determination; I have the average fund of knowledge for a person of my age and social position, which is unsurprising according to the mediocrity principle.  PZ Myer wrote a good essay about this principle, which reminds me of the Doctrine of the Mean in Chinese philosophy.  I should also add that, consciously or not, I often apply several tests to justify appropriateness, perhaps the most important is "does it benefit my children?" 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The cathartic use of sauna

Of the recreational interests I have pursued that have stuck with me for a long time, I think many have a cathartic function in the sense that they relieve stress by allowing me to experience suffering in a form that is healthier because it is easier to address.  Exercise, like riding a bike, is not just about looking at the scenery, it is also about pushing my physical endurance to its limits.  A runner thrills at testing her stamina to see how long she can persevere before giving up.  (Unfortunately, more often the runner's body fails before her stubborn resolve.)  Tests of physical ability and stamina are varied, and can even involve forms of deprivation; this is because self-control is synonymous with stamina.  My interest in saunas is no different.  For some people, or at least myself, the mild suffering of enduring the high temperature and humidity inside a sauna before re-emerging into the cool outdoor air is very cathartic.  And honestly, it is a stretch to describe the experience of a good sauna as coming anywhere near "suffering."  Coincidentally, from Wikipedia I learned:  catharsis is a Greek word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, "pure or clean."  A sauna can help purge physical and mental stress from your body, while purging your skin of toxins.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Japan earthquake

At three in the morning on March 11, 2011, Alaska time, the world changed for my wife and I.  When she woke up that morning a short message from her sister said that they were okay, but her father's workshop was gone (for an independent ceramic artist it is an irreplaceable loss).  This was among other messages from concerned friends.  At six in the morning she came to my bed crying and shared the news: an earthquake off the coast of Sendai.  The little news we had didn't all quite sink in for me then, it was surreal.  Later that day as I was heading to work, I heard the news over the radio, it gave me goose bumps, then as the announcer described details of the loss of life and property the reality of it all hit me and I began to cry.  March 11 was a day of crying for anyone who is close to anyone affected by that earthquake.  For those directly affected, I am sure many other strong emotions were felt as well, fear being foremost. 

I have been to Sendai three times visiting family members there.  The first time was before I was married, the second time was after I was married, and the third time I returned was after my wife and I had two small children.  The family we have there are very kind and generous, and it was a beautiful city.  But now it is the center of a national disaster, a disaster that the world is responding to.  A disaster that is still going on - the most pressing concern is evacuation as the meltdown of a nuclear power plant looms.  Now it is time for us to be generous. 

Two days before the earthquake I spoke briefly to my mother-in-law on the phone.  Her English is better than my Japanese.  My wife later returned her call and learned that there had been some bad news from the family, but things were on the mend.  Why the earthquake occurred later that week, I don't know.  But it mirrors the pattern in nature: several smaller earthquakes foreshadowed the coming of the large 8.9 earthquake.  If there was ever a time I wished I had the ability to predict the future, I wish I could have predicted this.  The night before the earthquake was the most beautiful display of the aurora borealis in Fairbanks that I had seen all winter. 

I have been trying to tally up the personal loss that affects us alone.  My wife's parents face starting over in life when most people their age would be starting or already enjoying their retirement.  My wife's sister, her husband, and their three children face unknown dangers in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.  Friends that we know in the area have certainly lost all their possessions, some perhaps their lives.  Some have seen their houses literally float away.  Places where we have been are gone, buildings, parks, roads, shops, the school my wife attended as a child, maybe the graveyard where her family members are buried.  These are only memories now that we have in our photos and videos.  But for my wife's parents, if their records of the past are gone, their memories may only exist in their minds.  In only a few minutes nature dramatically demonstrated the ultimate transience of human life and accomplishments.  Now that the past is gone, the future has never been less certain.

Update 3/14/11:
My wife's sister has electricity and her cell phone is working. She posted 22 photos to her facebook page. While the workshop is still standing, and in better condition than we had first feared, it is leaning dangerously to the side and her parents are working daily to remove items as aftershocks periodically continue to be felt. The family is still okay as food and water are available. The biggest concern remains the nuclear power plants. Warnings not to go outside when it rains have been put in effect.

leaning workshop
same workshop; view from chimney corner in above photo
interior of workshop

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Finnish Sauna

I've read through John Virtanen's 1974 book The Finnish Sauna: Peace of Mind, Body, and Soul.  This is the oldest sauna book I have seen.  The chapter organization seems a little disjointed and the book itself seems a collection of information that could benefit from the attention of a good editor.  It begins with a semi-autobiographical story of his youth and saunas in Finland, moves to a description of the historical role of saunas, and ends with descriptions of the current place of saunas in society and provides some practical construction details.  His recommendations for a "typical wall section" appear much the same as one would see today. 

The author appears to be promoting quality designed electric saunas as the safest and most affordable type.  Virtanen cautions about poisonous charcoal fumes or propane fumes from poorly operated or designed saunas of either type, and criticizes ineffectively designed electric stoves as well.  Otherwise, he has many good things to say about the traditional wood heated sauna.  Describing saunas in Siberia he writes "Log saunas throughout Russia are built of timber... a flat roof is made of turf over the round timbers."  This reminds me of Alvar Aalto's sauna I encountered earlier while reading Nordskog's book.  On page 125 is pictured an old shed roofed log sauna on the Karelian Isthmus that could easily be mistaken as a prototype for Aalto's design. The many black and white photos and pictures throughout the book are one of its best attributes. 

Virtanen states a humidity of 1.20 ounces of water vapor by weight per pound of air is the technical suggestion, but offers a simple rule of thumb that anyone can gauge, somewhere between "dry" and "steamy" is best [183].  He later writes [205]:
The main requirement of the Finnish sauna is that it create bathing conditions which cause the bather to perspire freely.  These conditions include the regulation of temperature, humidity and ventilation... The sauna should have an invigorating, rejuvenating, and tempering effect, while cleansing the body, refreshing the spirit and giving the feeling of complete well-being which is always the result of a good sauna.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Opposite of Cold

I recently received Michael Nordskog's book The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition via ILL from my local library. This is a beautiful book published in 2010 that should appeal to architecture buffs as much as sauna afficionados. At the outset Nordskog states that his book does not address building techniques, health benefits, or even the proper way to enjoy the Finnish bath. This disclaimer is a bit of false modesty, as he does have something to say at least about the last point a few lines later. The best way to introduce someone new to the sauna experience is to "extend the common courtesy that the person with the least experience controls the vital production of loyly by throwing water on the rocks" [3] and, by extension, we could say the same of the temperature of the sauna itself. Impressing the inexperienced with one's ability to suffer exposure to searing heat would simply forever discourage the uninitiated from a healing practice [4, 101].

Nordskog highlights a number of very beautiful saunas. Pictures of saunas from Muurame Saunakyla (sauna village) are beautiful, and the architect Alvar Aalto's sauna at Muuratsalo on Lake Paijanne is probably the most beautiful sauna I have ever seen. Before looking through the pages of this book, I had no idea the extent to which architects have elevated the art of sauna construction. Another amazing sauna is David Salmela's Emerson sauna, which has recieved national recognition by architectural organizations. And I particularly enjoyed the interview with Daryl Lamppa, owner of Kuuma Stoves. I have heard great things about his stoves and am considering buying one of them.

If I had one criticism for the book it would be to include a glossary of Finnish words used throughout the text. I learned that tikku is the word for the eye stinging gases that come off a fire [177].  Overall, this is a great book that really made me appreciate the Northwoods country. Now I would like to visit areas such as Thompson Island in Lake Superior. Perhaps the most whimsical and lovely part of the book is the picture of Tove Janssen's Moomin character sitting beside a sauna [78]. When I build my sauna, I will incorporate these ideas into my design in at least some small way.

(See this recent interview with the author; and a video interview.)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Alley by Alley with DJ Gaddafi

How do people respond to what is happening across the Muslim world? On the radio this morning I heard how Noy Alooshe responded.  He created this "Zenga Zenga hip-hop remix" of one of Gaddafi's speeches which has gone viral.

I've said it before, online videos have changed our world. Now to check out some traditional guzheng music...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mantra benefits?

Like Darren Naish, a dedicated biologist who infrequently publishes entries on cryptozoology, I like dabbling in the fringes of scientific knowledge.  So when I heard that Barb Bancroft visited the local hospital to give a seminar to health care professionals, and she alluded to a study identifying the effects of mantra meditation on hippocampal growth, I wanted to learn more.  Barb emphasized that it doesn't matter what one says, it is simply the act of  saying it.  Now I don't know if this was the study she was talking about, but I found online Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Hippocampal Activation During Silent Mantra Meditation.  It is interesting, but hardly seems conclusive.  I know folks who have chanted the Daimoku.  Barb joked that repeating “haagen dazs” provided her with the most inspiration.  Being of a more philosophical bias myself, I have been predisposed to ignore mantras, and gave more weight to Chan Buddhist shinkantaza meditation (which Kabat-Zinn has adapted to his MBSR program).  Years ago, recording my observations of its effects provided the inspiration for content on my first blog. 

If one is to use a mantra, how does one choose?  I decided that the simple “Om” would be a good choice to try.  After I got off work yesterday I looked up a few videos to get a feel for how to perform this mantra and while driving home I tried it.  Surprisingly, I felt much more relaxed and focused.  I think this is because when I hold the "om" sound for as long as I can before taking in the next breath, and repeating this over and over, I am essentially taking long slow deep breaths, which helps a person relax.  From listening and trying this mantra, I have made a few interesting observations and analogies.  Om is not a word in the sense that it has a correct spelling or meaning, it is simply a sound, and among words it is essentially onomatopoeia.  The low pitch of human vocal chords reverberates in one's body and has the side effect of loosening phlegm (I am sick right now actually).  In some ways it reminds me of the groan of a person in pain.  But moreover it reminds me of the sound of a dijeridoo, a singing bowl, an aeolian harp, liturgical chanting (one of my favorite parts of the traditional Lutheran service), Tuvan throat singing, or a purring cat.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My favorite things and goal progress

Have a look at the beautiful structure and consistency that can be found each day in my life:
  • Sleep and personal hygiene (includes sauna use)
  • Recitation of Japanese vocabulary; study and reflection (promotes discovery and learning)
  • Exercise outdoors (walking, running, biking)
  • Meal preparation, dishes, and chores (organizational skills)
  • Home maintenance and data communications improvement.  
  • Take care of animals and plants (greenhouse too)
  • Record of daily events and anniversaries.  
Every day, I try to accomplish something in each of these areas.  Don't be fooled, these are very broad categories.  (I use the same logic by which some people categorize ketchup as a vegetable.)  The most inclusive category there is denoted by “study and reflection”.  I mean every mental event, especially reading!  And “home maintenance” and “chores” admittedly overlap – they could even include automotive repairs and mortgage payments.   Chores are more regular and periodic, whereas home maintenance tends to involve irregular or rare activities (but as a category it includes many things).  So why did I make this list?  These are the things that I enjoy and look forward to doing, they provide a sense of peace and accomplishment.  And these are also some of the values and structure I want to impart upon my children.  The truth is that I'm not there yet.  Several of these things cannot be done.  But it is a vision, and I have a plan.  As with any good vision, it has limitless potential for growth built in.

But routine can also be seen as running to stay in place, which raises the question: How do you measure progress cumulatively? I am fascinated by form, energy, movement, and time. The inexorable progress of things on a geologic timescale. But people need to see progress daily. One measurable, physical manifestation of progress that many people take pride in is the number of pages read in any subject (fiction, math, psychology, science, etc.) each day. This is a quantitative measure of information absorbed and assimilated.  The sense of efficacy created by that can provide motivation for less desirable and more difficult tasks by means of a positive feedback loop.

Here is a simple image of how I see my goal progress.  It is pretty self explanatory I think and reflects the categories above.  The y-axis is time, the x-axis basically shows that I can focus on at least three major projects at once (I hope!) that give way to other projects as they are completed.  As regards the "new job" I have a few thoughts:  E.O. Wilson has said that if he could start his life over he would work in microbial ecology.  At my age, I could still do that:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


A virtual cult classic, Mikkel Aaland's 1978 book Sweat is a good read.  He has a neglected website, which is excusable for the fact that he is also a pioneer in digital photography, has just this year released a new book on sauna construction, How to Build Your Own Sauna and Sweat, and is working on a new PBS documentary based on his original book.  Perhaps the stained and well-worn library copy I read was an early edition, but I noticed that the text had several paragraphs out of sequence and several pages seemed to be completely missing (despite following numerical order).  The information that is there is very good however, and it is evident that Aaland is dedicated to his subject material having done a lot of original research in the field.

Several of the descriptions of the sounds and sensations one has in a sauna were very good.  He quoted Seven Brothers, by Aleksis Kivi: “Timo threw water on the heated oven until the blackened stones heaped over it cracked with a noise like rifle fire”.  Yes, that is what it sounds like, and the resulting loyly feels like heaven on your skin.  After reading the book, I wanted to get my own vihta and take a sauna!  Until you have taken several different saunas, it is hard to appreciate the different qualities that they can have.  A sauna is much more than a hot room.  The quality of heat, if one can speak of it in this way, can be excellent or unbearably harsh.  Maybe there is something to the idea of negative ions (that I come across frequently in descriptions, but remain skeptical of).  There are more books awaiting my review, but my attention must be averted to other matters for the mean time.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Vik over at The Lazy Randonneur occasionally posts "bike porn" - salacious pictures of beautiful bikes for people who have a real affection for such things.  Here I will post some "greenhouse porn". 

Doug Leen lives in Petersburg, Alaska.  His greenhouse (pictured above) is simple and beautiful.  Essentially it looks like a modern trestle frame or truss frame design.  I'd like to build one very similar. One thing I might add is eye bolts and cables for diagonal bracing along the walls, but rigid polycarbonate panels serve the same function.  

Rosie Creek Farm has a beautiful collection of greenhouses used to grow their organic produce.  One might say this is simply a larger version of Doug's truss frame greenhouse (though it was built earlier, another view).  The larger roof span benefits from a more triangulated truss design.