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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Thoreau on Tying His Shoelaces - July 25, 1853

I have for years had a great deal of trouble with my shoe-strings, because they get untied continually.  They are leather, rolled and tied in a hard knot. But some days I could hardly go twenty rods before I was obliged to stop and stoop to tie my shoes. My companion and I speculated on the distance to which one tying would carry you, —the length of a shoe-tie,— and we thought it nearly as appreciable and certainly a more simple and natural measure of distance than a stadium, or league, or mile. Ever and anon we raised our feet on whatever fence or wall or rock or stump we chanced to be passing, and drew the strings once more, pulling as hard as we could. It was very vexatious, when passing through low scrubby bushes, to become conscious that the strings were already getting loose again before we had fairly started. What should we have done if pursued by a tribe of Indians? My companion sometimes went without strings altogether, but that loose way of proceeding was not [to] be thought of by me. One shoemaker sold us shoe strings made of the hide of a South American jackass, which he recommended; or rather he gave them to us and added their price to that of the shoes we bought of him. But I could not see that these were any better than the old. I wondered if anybody had exhibited a better article at the World’s Fair, and whether England did not bear the palm from America in this respect. I thought of strings with recurved prickles and various other remedies myself. At last the other day it occurred to me that I would try an experiment, and, instead of tying two simple knots one over the other the same way, putting the end which fell to the right over each time, that I would reverse the process, and put it under the other. Greatly to my satisfaction, the experiment was perfectly successful, and from that time my shoe-strings have given me no trouble, except sometimes in untying them at night.

On telling this to others I learned that I had been all the while tying what is called a granny’s knot, for I had never been taught to tie any other, as sailors’ children are; but now I had blundered into a square knot, I think they called it, or two running slip-nooses. Should not all children be taught this accomplishment, and an hour, perchance, of their childhood be devoted to instruction in tying knots?

Also from The Virtual Vanaprastha:

Monday, March 13, 2017

Thoreau Celebrates the "Philosophia Botanica".

It is surprising how few readers of Thoreau go far enough afield to meet the man we find here, delighted with his botany manual, eagerly memorizing the Latin scientific names for plants, poring over illustrations for clues.  He was asked to collect scientific samples for Louis Agassiz's laboratory at Harvard. He even wrote a scientific paper that continues to be consulted today.

"I have learned in a shorter time and more accurately the meaning of the scientific terms used in botany from a few plates of figures at the end of the "Philosophia Botanica," with the names annexed, than a volume of explanations or glossaries could teach. And, that the alternate pages to the plates may not be left blank, he has given on them very concise and important instruction to students of botany. This lawgiver of science, this systematizer, this methodist, carries his system into his studies in the field. On one of these little pages he gives some instruction concerning herbatio, or what the French called herborisations, — we say botanizing. Into this he introduces law and order and system, and describes with the greatest economy of words what some would have required a small volume to tell, all on a small page ; tells what dress you shall wear, what instruments you shall carry, what season and hour you shall observe, — viz. "from the leafing of the trees, Sirius excepted, to the fall of the leaf, twice a week in summer, once in spring, from seven in the morning till seven at night," — when you shall dine and take your rest, etc., in a crowd or dispersed, etc., how far you shall go, — two miles and a half at most, — what you shall collect and what kind of observations make, etc., etc."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Henry David Thoreau on Lichens and the Universe

Thoreau's journals of March 1852 seem to me a revelation.  There is a romanticism toward life, mixed with his growing scientific interests, that may prove to be part of an essay that is presently in the works.  This from the 5th of the month:

"I find myself inspecting little granules, as it were, on the bark of trees, little shields or apothecia spring from a thallus, such is the mood of my mind, and I call it studying lichens. That is merely the prospect which is afforded me. It is short commons and innutritious. Surely I might take wider views. The habit of looking at things microscopically, as the lichens on the trees and rocks, really prevents my seeing aught else in a walk. Would it not be noble to study the shield of the sun on the thallus of the sky, cerulean, which scatters its infinite sporules of light through the universe ? To the lichenist is not the shield (or rather the apothecium) of a lichen disproportionately large compared with the universe? The minute apothecium of the pertusaria, which the woodchopper never detected,  occupies so large a space in my eye at present as to shut out a great part of the world."

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Henry David Thoreau, March 1, 1852

Here we are introduced to the later, more mature Thoreau.  The cabin at Walden Pond is empty now or occasionally occupied by vagrants or hunters (it seems likely).

"After having read various books on various subjects for some months, I take up a report on Farms by a committee of Middlesex Husbandmen, and read of the number of acres of bog that some farmer has redeemed, and the number of rods of stone wall that he has built, and the number of tons of hay he now cuts, or of bushels of corn or potatoes he raises there, and
I feel as if I had got my foot down on to the solid and sunny earth, the basis of all philosophy, and poetry, and religion even. I have faith that the man who redeemed some acres of land the past summer redeemed also some parts of his character. I shall not expect to find him ever in the almshouse or the prison. He is, in fact, so far on his way to heaven. When he took the farm there was not a grafted tree on it, and now he realizes something handsome from the sale of fruit. These, in the absence of other facts, are evidence of a certain moral worth."

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Mass-Production of Individuality

Mass production and mass consumption have steadily been killing the individual.  Behavioral algorithms are the final stage in which the last vestiges of the individual are being eradicated.  They standardize the last, most stubbornly resistant step in the production-consumption process: desire.  Because the data shows that people deeply desire the feeling that they are individuals, our behavioral algorithms must constantly incorporate the illusion that categories of behavior (most particularly, consumption choices)  are the proper definition of "individuality" in order to accomplish optimum outcomes.  Because the truth-value of an algorithm, like any logico-mathematical equation, is its effectiveness in solving the problem upon which it is brought to bear, then, the existence of individuality has actually been proved “true” by virtue of its eradication.  We mass-produce individuality.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Facts do not scale.

A fact that has been focus grouped is no longer a fact, it is an opinion.  The only fact that can be determined by a poll is which among several prepackaged opinions a test population prefers.  Facts (to use the popular marketing terminology of the present moment) “do not scale”.  They do not fail to be facts if they are unpopular.  They do not become greater or more factual inasmuch as opinion proves to favor them.  Because they do not, the tools of marketing can neither produce nor arrive at truths.  In fact, a Democracy of polling and focus groups begins to believe that truths are an undemocratic illusion.  We have entered a market driven age in which vast resources are available (for a price), and, except for a tiny minority of specially trained persons, only opinions can possibly result from their use.  Those opinions can only compete for market share in the fashion of all other products.  A Democracy based upon marketing methods can only arrive at dysfunction or empty ritual… or, as is the case at the moment, a struggle to determine which of the two will prevail.  The only question is which will win out in the end.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015


While our sciences and technologies grow ever more incredible, human nature remains unchanged.

...destroying the last of our culture...

We are in the process of destroying the last of our culture because it does not allow for the maximal rate of production and consumption of (mostly cheap) goods.  The depth of the personal and social chaos this is creating affects our lives in ever more disruptive ways virtually every day.  As climate change (for just one example among many) manifests itself to the point that societal blindness to its existence is impossible, the balance provided by the civil society which we must depend upon in order to reduce the violence of the changes is collapsing even faster and with even more destructive results.

Perfect justice...

Perfect justice does not exist.  In a world that can no longer believe in an omniscient deity, justice does not exist at all.  There is no longer a referee, real or illusory, only players ever more aware that they can do almost anything in their desire to win, positively unconcerned for the wider consequences.  There is only escalation.  The vestigial remains of religion and its constructs linger.  There is the struggle to “find a way back”.  There is even a vestigial belief in the word “justice” as a power-word (thus a word emptied of meaning) available for a while longer as a tactic to support various factions engaged in a vicious struggle to have the one thing that remains possible: power.