Monday, October 27, 2014

Always a Reckoning: a Review

Life on a Killer Submarine by Sarah Elizabeth Chuldenko
Last week at the Live Oak Library on Corcoran Lagoon I discovered a Charles Bukowski book I had not yet read (War All the Time) and right next to it on the shelf I found this remarkable collection of poetry Always a Reckoning. The author was a Navy lieutenant in the US submarine fleet under Hyman Rickover "who goaded us to reach for higher dreams and duties than the mediocre". Of his life inside a nuclear sub, this military poet wrote:


I had a warm, sequestered feeling
deep beneath the sea,
moving silently, assessing
what we could hear from far away
because we ran so quietly ourselves,
walking always in our stocking feet.
We'd listen to the wild sea sounds,
the scratch of shrimp, the bowhead's moan,
the tantalizing songs of humpback whales.
We strained to hear all other things,
letting ocean lenses bring to us
the steady, throbbing beat of screws,
the murmurs of most distant ships,
or submarines that might be hunting us.
One time we heard, with perfect clarity,
a vessel's pulse four hundred miles away
and remembered that, in spite of everything
we did to keep our sounds suppressed,
the gradient sea could focus too, our muffled noise,
could let the other listeners know
where their torpedoes might be aimed.
We wanted them to understand
that we could always hear them first
and, knowing, be inclined to share
our love of solitude, our fear
that one move, threatening or wrong,
could cost the peace we yearned to keep,
and kill our hopes that they were thrilled, like us,
to hear the same whale's song.

This warrior bard was a poet of place like Carl Sandburg: his place was not Sandburg's Chicago Midwest but America's rural South: many of his poems describe a boy's Huck-Finn-like experiences growing up in a society where racial segregation was the law of the land. Like Sandburg, his poems show him to be an perceptive student of nature, including the nature of human beings. The poet also became a Southern politician and wrote about that too:

My First Try for Votes by Sarah Elizabeth Chuldenko


Uneasy in my first campaign,
I feared the likely ridicule,
but got up nerve and neared
some loafers I saw shooting pool.

I caught the eye of an older man
who seemed to know who I might be.
When I went up to him to speak
he cocked a bleary eye at me.

"Now wait, don't tell me who you are,"
he shouted out. I stood in dread.
Bystanders paused. I blabbed my name.
He frowned. "Naw, that ain't it," he said.

Politician poet was a family man. He wrote love poems to his wife, rhymed affections to his father, to his friends and to his dog (some included here). And his grand-daughter Sarah Elizabeth made line drawings to illustrate each of her grandfather's poems.

This family man was also a diplomat, mediating conflicts in every continent except Antarctica: his world-wide arbitrations earning this diplomat poet a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. A philanthropist as well, this poet worked successfully to reduce disease in Africa, to provide affordable housing to the poor and to fight injustice and inhumanity in his own country and elsewhere in the world.

Not only his words but his deeds as well prove this warrior/diplomat/family-man to be one of the most thoughtful, high-minded and moral figures of his day -- all these character traits (and this man's modesty too) clearly shine through his poetry. Reading these simple yet skillful verses, one is left to wonder, in such an amoral and barbaric nation as our own, how such a noble and high-minded man as this warrior poet could ever have been elected president of the United States.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


The Consequences of Decision by Jacob Livengood


(for Henry Stapp
who once conjectured
that consciousness is our reward
for collapsing the wave function.)

Could sexual cravings explain the equations
Of Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Born and Dirac
Is it sex that bedazzles the great Milky Way?
Is it sex that explains why quarks interact?

Sex that's animalistic
Sex that's deeply dirty and raw
Sex that feeds on Quantum Reality
Sex that fucks with Natural Law.

The hottest mystery in physics is this:
Out of what conceivable gateway
Do fresh new realities spring?
O World, please lead me to quantum temptation
Could "how matter gets real" be a sexual thing?

Sex that's subtle, sex that's delicate
As a single photon of light
Sex that tentatively fingers the Darkness
And, finding it good, impregnates the Night.

Innocent and uninhibited
By the ignorance of today
Sex that's teasing us to discover
How this Universe wants to play.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Neville's Brain

Although Neville's brain was in a state of superposition, he was, when fully probed, a naive realist. Lynden Stone 2014
Lynden Elizabeth Stone is an Australian visual artist who explores the richness and ambiguity of existence using metaphors derived from quantum physics. I first met Lynden in the context of her Metaphase Typewriter Revival project where she reproduced with modern technology a nutty old experiment of mine put together at the dawn of the computer age that explored the conjecture that elemental quantum randomness might be used by spirits, both embodied and immaterial, to communicate in human language if a suitable computer interface were provided.

Lynden recently came to America as an artist in residence at Crane Galleries in Philadelphia where she exhibited the revived metaphase machine and other work concerning the ambiguity of existence. She just now completed her PhD at Griffith University in Queensland for a thesis entitled Doubting Conventional Reality: Visual Art and Quantum Mechanics in which she surveys contemporary visual artists who are using quantum-physics metaphors in the visual arts -- including her own work in this arena.

Part of Lynden's PhD thesis included a public exhibition of her work. She asked me to contribute some program notes for this show and promised me "an original art work" in exchange. A few days ago I received in the mail a pizza-box-sized package that contained Lynden's art work Neville's Brain.

In one simple image Lynden invokes several famous physicists beginning with the image of the Moon in the upper left corner. Lynden renders this moon in lenticular photography which was invented by British physicist David Brewster (who also invented the kaleidoscope). In the present context the moon image also suggests Einstein's famous quantum question to physicist Abraham Pais: "Do you really believe that the Moon does not exist when nobody looks?".

The black-and-white background of Lynden's piece consists of distorted Greek letters "psi" which is the symbol for the wavefunction in quantum theory. Neville's superposed brain is reminiscent of the "Wigner's Friend paradox" in quantum mechanics as well as John von Neumann's conjecture that when humans observe a superposed quantum system, their brain states should also turn into superpositions.

The fact that Neville is a naive realist despite his superposed brain summarizes the basic quantum conundrum of why the world always appears "classical" despite the fact that physicists can prove that the world is entirely "quantum". Today, the real mystery is not quantum mechanics; the real mystery is why the world appears to humans to be stubbornly classical.

We house-broke quantum reality
Taught Schrödinger's Cat to purr
Now daily life's as uncanny
As atoms ever were.

At the bottom right is the fuzzy sketch of an animal which might possible represent the famously ambiguous Schrödinger Cat. Except that Lynden's animal looks just like a dog.

Thank you, Lynden Stone, for this rich and original work. I will treasure it like a quantum Picasso.

Erwin's Puss by Lynden Stone, housed at Centre for Quantum Dynamics, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Heart of Aikido

LInda Holiday Sensei, Aikido of Santa Cruz
For a long time I have been curious about the contention that some sort of invisible energy flows between people, an energy my dancer wife Betsy referred to as "just energy, Nick" and that many Oriental thinkers have called "prana", "chi" or "ki". So I decided a long while back to see if I could experience this mysterious psychic fluid first hand and started by signing up for aikido classes at North Bay Aikido in Santa Cruz. I purchased a "gi" (aikido uniform) and three times a week I was practicing throwing and being thrown to the mat by lots of different people of assorted sizes, abilities and genders. I liked aikido a lot, both as a sport, as a novel way of interacting with strangers and as a philosophy of life.

I practiced aikido for several months until a physical condition (not related to the dojo) forced me to give up the sport and I never returned. Although I failed in my attempt to "see ki", I gained a lot of confidence in the powers of my own body plus I became acutely aware of the bodies of other people -- everyone I met I perceived as a potential aikido partner. Throwing and being thrown hundreds of times by strangers had paradoxically made me more comfortable with people and more eager to engage with them.

The character "ki" is derived from a picture of rice cooking in a pot.

A friend of mine is writing a book for North Atlantic Books and invited me to go with him to visit the NAB offices in Berkeley. While skimming their archives, I discovered that NAB had just published a new book Journey to the Heart of Aikido by my former aikido teacher, Linda Holiday. So I returned to my old dojo (now in a big, brand-new location) and bought a copy from Linda herself.

Journey to the Heart of Aikido
The first thing I realized when studying aikido was that "no amount of reading is going to do you any good here, Nick. Aikido is something that you can't learn from books." But once you have practiced a bit of aikido, Linda's book can help deepen your appreciation of this marvelous sport.

In her book, Linda describes two hearts. One is a physical place and the other is an invisible entity.

The physical "heart of aikido" is the Kumano Juku Dojo in Shingu, Japan, where the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (known simply as O-Sensei = Great Teacher) began sharing this new martial art with his students. The city of Shingu is located in Pacific coastal mountains forested by Japanese sugi trees that resemble American redwoods. So much does the landscape of Shingu resemble Santa Cruz that now, largely through the efforts of aikido students, the two towns have officially become sister cities.

Given that Kumano Juku Dojo is the physical "heart of aikido", Linda describes three separate journeys to this aikido heartland. The first is the story of O-Sensei's life as a teacher of martial arts to an elite military and political class and his decision to teach a new kind of combat based on "harmony" and the notion of "no opponent". O-Sensei journeyed to Shingu to set up the Kumano Juku Dojo in a small rural town noted for its shrines, a obscure location in the Japanese countryside close to where he was born.

The second journey to the heartland is the story of Linda's own pilgrimage to Shingu to study aikido as one of the few Westerners and even fewer women members of the Kumano Dojo. O-Sensei had died a few years before Linda's arrival but she and her Western associates were privileged to practice aikido with many experts who had studied directly with the Master himself. This second story tells how Linda fell in love with aikido, and eventually with the Japanese culture and language out of which it arose.

The third journey to the aikido heartland is that of Motomichi Anno, a worker in a Japanese paper factory, who traveled to Shingu shortly after WW II to study with the mysterious martial artist in the woods and eventually become one of the directors of his dojo. Anno Sensei was one of Linda's favorite teachers. When she returned to America she invited him to come to her own dojo in Santa Cruz to teach and speak about aikido while Linda translated his talks from Japanese into English.

The journey to the "spiritual heart of aikido" consists of Linda's own impressions of her journey and her translations of the exchanges between American students and her venerable Japanese teacher about the language and philosophy that surrounds the practice of this wordless art. In these discourses, Anno Sensei gives his own impression of aikido and attempts to clarify exactly what's meant by such terms as "heart", "spirit" and yes (my old favorite) "ki", as he understands these terms as transmitted to him directly by the founder O-Sensei.

This book (richly illustrated with pictures of O-Sensei, aikido practices and the Kumano countryside) will be of interest to anyone curious about the history of aikido. Linda is a good story teller. But those who will derive the greatest value from this book will be aikido students of any rank. Reading Journey to the Heart of Aikido will deepen in many ways our appreciation of why we are taking and giving all these falls only to keep coming back for more.

Linda's book includes a glossary of Japanese words common in the aikido community and an illustrated warm-up exercise straight from the Kumano Juku Dojo. "This exercise," says Linda, "which combines meditation, breathing, visualization, and movement, is a purification practice that O-Sensei often did at the beginning of class. Its purpose is to develop a state of unity with the spirit of the universe."

The best books are written by those who love their subject. For this scholarly, inspiring and loving glimpse into the many hearts of this fascinating martial art, domo arigato. Thank you very much, Linda Holiday Sensei.

Anno Sensei and Linda Holiday Sensei