My new Photo Blog

I’ve decided to make all my photography-related posts on a new blog, Douglas G. Stinson Photography. I will use “Unexpected Connections” for my more philosophical musings. As keep this distinction clear, I have deleted my purely photography-related postings from this blog.

I hope those of you who have enjoyed my photography will “follow” me at the new site!

Thanks for reading!

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Creating ones self

OuroborosIn his blog on technology for the writer’s group The Loft, my friend Don reinterprets the Ouroboros, conventional “he who eats the tail” as “that which creates itself by speaking itself.”

I know I’m supposed to think the Ouroboros paradoxical. The snake who constantly consumes itself, but is never consumed. But that is not how I see it. I see the circle grow ever tighter until it becomes a point, and then disappears.

However, if the snake is speaking itself into existence, the paradox seems unavoidable. I see it happening, so I must believe it, but it seems impossible because how did it start?

Don writes a bit of PHP code that “eats” a string of characters and regurgitates it in reverse order as a symbolic representation of the transformation from Ouroboros “one who eats his tail” to Soroboruo “that which creates itself by speaking itself”. Comments poetically explain the code’s function, as if holding the code up to a mirror, reflecting the analogy.

I think a better programing analogy might be to the concept of recursion. “Ordinary” functions F(x) take a value x and transform it into a new number, for example F(x)=x2+1. In code, this might look like function fnF(x){return x^2+1;}. This is easy to understand. Hand the function an “x” and the function will return a “y” equal to x2+1.

A recursive function, for example Fn=Fn-1 + Fn-2, creates itself from itself. This might look like function fnF(n){return fnF(n-1)+fnF(n-2);}. This is not so easy to understand. Hand the function an “n”, and it asks itself ‘what is the value for n-1 and n-2?’. It then asks itself, ‘what is the value for n-2 and n-3? And so forth.

This happens to be the definition of a Fibonacci series. From n=-5 to n=5 one such series is … 5, -3, 2, -1, 1, 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5 … . The definition of the function explains from where the next number comes, but from where did the series come? No matter how far back one goes, there are always two earlier elements that needed to be calculated from yet earlier elements. I see it so I must believe it, but it seems impossible because how did it start?

Of course, historically the Fibonacci series was created by assigning F1=1 and F2=1 and calculating forward. Later it was extended to negative “n”. This is rather like freezing the Ouroboros in time, which is exactly what the drawing at the top of this essay does. It is only in our minds that we imagine what the Ouroboros must have looked like before, and before that, and before that, creating the symbolism and the paradox. But didn’t the Fibonacci recursion relationship and the series itself always exist, independent of time, from -∞ to +∞, without us having started it?

If the Ouroboros is “speaking itself into existence”, it is more than recursive, it is  selfreferential, i.e. talking about itself. Self-referential statements are even more difficult to deal with. The most famous such statement was made by the Cretan Epimenides, as quoted by the Apostle Paul: “Cretans are always liars” (Titus 1:12).

Is that statement true or is it false?

Self-referential statements are so problematic that one is tempted to ban them from logic. But isn’t the ability to examine one’s self, talk about one’s self and modify one’s self the very definition of possessing consciousness?

This is the basis for Douglas Hofstadter’s assertion that self-referential algorithms, or “strange loops” as he calls them, are critical to artificial and natural intelligence.

In his blog, Don call attention to an analogy between his reinterpretation of the Ouroboros and  the Gospel of John

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … All things came into being by Him…

When we read this in conjunction with Genesis

then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light

we see God simultaneously speaking the words that bring the universe into existence and  being “the Word”.

In the original Greek, what was written was λόγος (logos), which means not only “word” but “an expectation” and “reason”. I particularly like the thought of the universe existing as “an expectation”, full of potentialities, where we create it as we go by the choices we make.

Emanuel Swedenborg saw the human as a microcosm of the universe and the creation story of Genesis as a symbolic description for individual human development. While he proposed detailed correspondences for each of the seven days, they can be generalized into three steps (1) recognizing the need to improve [Repentance], (2) acting “as if” you were improved, i.e., practicing [Reformation], and finally, incorporating the “new you” into your inner nature [Regeneration]. In a real sense, we are “speaking our new self into existence”. While Swedenborg has a particular way of expressing these concepts, you see similar principles espoused in practically every religion and every secular “self-help” group.

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Becoming Your Parent

This is the eulogy I delivered at by father’s funeral, but it is also a commentary of what we receive, often unwittingly, from our parents.

Winston Herbert Stinson
November 15, 1923 – April 21, 2007

Our parents prepared my brother, Scot, and me for the transitions in our lives. They supported us through those transitions; our high school graduations, college graduations and our marriages.

At each of those events I saw in my parents’ faces the happiness that came from seeing us, their children, grow into a new phase of our lives. But I also saw the sadness that came from the knowledge that we were also moving away from them in many ways.

Today I am filled with the same contradictory mixture of emotions I saw in my parents on those occasions. For today is yet another graduation ceremony. We are here to celebrate my father’s graduation into a more abundant life with the Lord, where his spirit, the sum total of all that he learned, all that he created, all that he is, can shine unconstrained by physical limitations. It is my most fervent wish that all of you share my joy on this occasion.

I know you share my sorrow. The sorrow that comes from the lack of his physical presence among us. Yet in a very real sense, he hasn’t left us and can never leave us, anymore then, throughout all our transitions, Scot and I could leave our parents’ hearts.

Cigar boxes on basement shelves

Cigar boxes store magical stuff on shelves in my parent's basement. Note the label on the box in the center of the frame.

In the basement of my parent’s house there are shelves on which sit rows of cigar boxes. Each box is labeled in my dad’s precise lettering with their contents. There are boxes with electrical outlets, plugs, wire nuts, mercury switches and so on. As a child these were treasures and my dad explained what each one was for and how it worked. I spent hours fashioning perfectly functioning but utterly useless electrical circuits from this stuff. I also received a few nasty shocks.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad sitting in the black wooden rocking chair, with me curled up in his lap, while he read to me from the small, maroon volumes of the Funk and Wagner’s encyclopedia about electric generators, transformers and all sorts of other magical stuff. But this was magic that had logic, could be understood, and which a person could use to build useful things.

Later I went to college, and then to graduate school, and finally to work in the research laboratories of several companies. But — if I have done anything of use, it can be traced back to those cigar boxes and that rocking chair.

By the way, on those basement shelves there are certain boxes whose labels begin “ASST”. ASST screws, ASST connectors, and so forth.  Now as a young child one learns language seemingly by osmosis from one’s parents. A cat is called a “cat”, a spoon a “spoon” and generally one doesn’t ask why. A cat just IS a “cat”. And so it was that I learned that ASST means “this is the box you look in when you can’t find what you want in any other box”. Only when you grow into middle age does your mind take a philosophical bent and you begin to ask those penetrating questions such as “What the heck does ASST mean?!” I assume it means “assorted” but now I can never be sure.

My favorite cigar box was labeled by dad “ASST ODDS”. I assume ODDS is short for “odds and ends”. But apparently these are not ordinary odds and ends. These are assorted odds and ends. Clearly this is the box of last resort.

Another influence my dad had on me was in the appreciation of visual beauty and craftsmanship. Yes, he earned a living as a sign painter and as a master cabinet-maker, but beyond that, I grew up surrounded by wonderful wooden plaques cut in the shape of, and painted to look like, various cartoon characters and animals. Luckily, he never finished all of these and so I got to discover them in various stages of completion and could see all the detailed work that went into them. He also made signs for various relatives, friends and neighbors and I saw the care that came so naturally it seemed effortless but that informed every decision of shape, finish, lettering style and color to capture and express meaning, emotion – and love.

As a result of dad’s influence, I’ve dabbled in typography and graphic layout and developed a passion for photography. Earlier this year some of my photographs were selected to be displayed in a local exhibition. At the opening, a person whose talent I admire, pulled me aside and said “I really like your work, it is so precise”. This took me aback. I hadn’t heard anyone refer to a piece of art as “precise” before and, frankly, I didn’t know whether to be honored or insulted. Then two days ago I came across some practice pieces my dad did as a commercial art student. Expressing the greatest love of his life he produced, in large, dramatic 3-dimensional block lettering, the word “RUTHIE”. With a little notation that the “T” should be moved 1/16 of an inch to the left.

My mother's nickname

Robert Sapolsky is a professor at Stanford University who studies the effects of stress in animals. He has written a number of best-selling books for general audiences based on his research, perhaps the most popular being “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. By one of those strange coincidences in life, I was reading one of Sapolsky’s books two weeks ago while visiting with my dad, for what would turn out to be the last time. While studying baboons in Africa, Sapolsky employed the son of an African family, who, being the youngest, would not inherit the scraggly collection of animals constituting the family’s wealth. Having no prospects in his home village he left to make his way in the city. Sapolsky accompanied him back to his village for a visit and watched as the young man regaled his father and eldest brother with tales that must have seemed as strange to them as if he had just returned from an alien planet. Sapolsky noticed that the eldest brother and father nodded, smiled, laughed and talked at the same time. Their expressions were virtually identical and changed in unison. It was as if the older brother not only inherited his father’s herd, but was growing to become the father. And he thought “this is the difference between “western” and “African” cultures. In the west we strive to separate from and surpass our parents while here in Africa their ambition is merely to become their parents.”

Later, the death of his own father inspired Sapolsky to give a motivational, “carpe diem” lecture to his students. Once he began speaking, he found himself talking not about how life is short and how they should take risks and make their mark, but rather, quite against his volition, he told them to steel themselves against life’s difficulties and inevitable disappointments. In short, he gave the lecture his father would have given in that situation. Shaken, he realized that perhaps western and African cultures were not so different. That becoming your parent is not only inevitable, but admirable.

And so I find it is one of my greatest pleasures, and a far better tribute to my father than these words, when my wife turns to me and says with a loving smile, “You know, when you do that you remind me of your dad.”

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Just because you find it, don’t stop searching

Recently I went for a walk in Portola Redwoods State Park. The ostensible purpose was to photograph the small but scenic Tip Toe Falls. After scouting the area I chose an oblique view to include the ferns and color from the adjacent cliff walls.

Tip Toe Falls

Tip Toe Falls, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

This image is actually a composite of three photographs. The shutter speed for the base photo was chosen to obtain a balance between motion blur and capturing detail in the flow of water over the fall. However, under those condition the water in the pool looked “frozen”, as that water was moving slower. A second exposure was made with a slower shutter speed, and the area of the pool was copied and pasted into the original photograph. A third image was taken, exposed to bring out some shadow detail on the cliff wall, and the relevant areas copied and pasted into the original. Selective contrast adjustments, cloning out some small, distracting elements and applying some vignetting completed the image.

Before I packed up to hike out, I took one last look around to see if there was anything else interesting to photograph. Jumping to the other side of the stream, I noticed the fern frond that shows up in the center of the photo above, forming a gentle arc against the background of the falls.

Fern Frond in front of waterfall

Fern Frond by Tip Toe Falls, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

This is rather different interpretation of the falls, which now provide a patterned background for the central subject, the grace of the fern.

By now the sun was almost directly overhead, traditionally the worst time of the day for photography. I was hungry and had an afternoon appointment. Time to leave.

But I reminded myself that I was trying to develop a new practice. To be patient. To be open to the moment. It was then I noticed the sun shinning through the overhanging ferns, infusing them with an internal glow. I took several shots, but this is my favorite.

Back lit Fern Frond

Fern, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

In fact, it is my favorite image of the day. An image I would not have captured if I had stopped looking once I had found the image of the waterfall I originally sought. An image I would not have seen if I hadn’t rejected, not once, but twice, the impulse to move on to the next item on my list.

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A Republican becomes a Feminist

I converted to feminism at an early age, although it would be many years before I would even hear, much less understand, that word.

When I was 7 years old my best friend was the son of “intellectual” parents, a rare breed in my New Hampshire town of 6000 souls. And even rarer, his parents were Democrats. As appropriate for the son of intellectual Democrats, one day he taught me how to make campaign placards. We each nailed two sticks together in the shape of a Christian cross and glued them between two squares of cardboard. I scribbled “Nixon / Lodge” on mine while he lettered “Kennedy / Johnson”. Around my house we marched, waving our signs to the quiet amusement of my mother.

In sixth grade we two debated the merits of the presidential candidates in front of our class. He supported Johnson; I was a staunch Goldwater man. He whipped up the class with all the passion and emotion Democrats brought to that campaign. I was cool and logical. Parents called the school board complaining that our teacher encouraged “divisive behavior”. The second debate was cancelled. In the mock election that followed, Johnson won by a landslide.

That same year I was smitten by my first love. She was exotic, beautiful, smart, and funny. Every day we ate lunch crowded together on long, green benches folded out from the wall of the gymnasium. There was never a lull in the conversation.

One day our talk turned to plans for the future. I hoped to be the first person in my family’s history to go to college. She wanted an education too, but “there probably won’t be any money left after my family puts my brothers through college”. Oh, are your bothers older than you, I asked. No. Smarter? Of course not. I became quite agitated. “That’s crazy!” I exclaimed. “That’s the way it is”, she replied.

Here I was, a New Hampshire Republican weaned on the mother’s milk of self-reliance, initiative, and advancement through merit. And here was a wonderful, smart person – my friend – and she saw a very limited future. Was she not self-reliant? Did she not show initiative? Did she lack merit? No. She was a girl.

To this day I don’t know which makes me more angry: the blatant unfairness, or her quiet acceptance of it.

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Live Free or Die

My mother is one of those women who relate through self effacement. For example, after being complemented on a wonderful Sunday dinner, she is likely to respond:

“I always serve peas with this meal; I don’t know why I served beans this time. Peas would have been much better don’t you think? Why didn’t I serve peas! ”

One of the things she regrets is that she passed up the opportunity to name me William Stark Stinson. In my family, William Stark is the name traditionally given to the first born male of each generation.

“Why didn’t I name you William Stark? I’m sure you would have appreciated it more than your cousin”.

Why William Stark?

Every New Hampshire school child learns the story of how on April 28, 1752 John Stark was captured by Indians while on a hunting trip near what is now Rumney, NH. He was used as bait to lure his brother, William, and William’s brother in-law David Stinson, into a trap. At the last minute, John broke free, knocked the Indians’ guns into the air just as they fired, saving his brother’s life.

But not, alas, Stinson’s.

Now some of you may be wondering how this event could result in a family name handed down through the generations, much less being taught to every school child.

How many of you know who John Stark is?

john Stark, Famous Revolutionary War HeroGeneral John Stark, hero of the Battle of Bennington?

Still not ringing a bell?

Let me try another tack. How many of you know the NH state motto? It’s on all the license plates.

Yes, “Live Free or Die” was uttered by none other than John Stark!

(Actually he said “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils”.)

David did get a brook, a lake, and a mountain named after him. I am proud to share my surname with a mountain. A mountain memorializing my relative; the one famed for not being saved by John Stark, famous Revolutionary War hero!

Fortunately, there were other Stinsons around at the time, and one John Stinson became a local and state leader, one of NH’s first supporters of Thomas Jefferson and, according to the History of the Town of Dunbarton, a “strenuous advocate for religious freedom.”

The light of the “Founding Fathers” — Franklin, Adams, Madison, Jefferson — shines so bright it is difficult to remember they couldn’t have accomplished what they did without the support of men and women like John Stinson in all the towns and wilderness settlements of the 13 Colonies. By reading State Constitutions one can obtain an insight into the thinking of those lesser lights on a variety of topics, including religious freedom.

New Hampshire has the distinction of adopting an interim constitution on January 5, 1776, making NH the first of the Colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. They then argued for another 7 years (mostly about how to create a government without giving it any actual power) before adopting a final constitution in October 1783. You may think 7 years is a pretty long argument, but remember it was 8 more years before the Bill of Rights was adopted.

The NH constitution contains some remarkable statements. For example, Article 10 states that, should the government become tyrannical; the people have, not just the right, but the duty, to take up arms and overthrow the government. Beat that, Berkeley City Council!

Of more interest are Articles 1, 2 and 3. These declare that all people are born free and independent, and have inherent rights … not privileges granted by kings – or by the Constitution, but rights that are an intrinsic ingredient of being human. People may voluntarily surrender some of those rights to society in return for society’s protection of other rights, an idea known as the Social Contract, most famously explicated by John Locke.

But the epiphany comes in Article 4. Article 4 asserts that some rights cannot be surrendered to society, because there is nothing of equal value that society can return. The one such right listed is the Right of Conscience.

Think about that for a moment. The framers of this constitution are stating that there is NOTHING you can be given that is as valuable as your right to develop and hold personal beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. There is nothing as important as the freedom to pursue in your own way the answers to the ultimate questions of life and meaning. Not food, not shelter, not life itself. Nothing.

This is the meaning of “live free or die”.

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Adam Smith and the Occupy Wall Street movement

George Will is one of my favorite columnists/commentators. I appreciate his historical perspective and his logical approach. But every so often he seems to lose his perspective and become a shill for ideologues. This past Sunday’s edition of  the TV news show This Week was one such occasion.

Will asked Jesse LaGreca, a blogger for the liberal website Daily Kos, the following question about the Occupy Wall Street movement

Mr. LaGreca, I hear a certain dissonance in your message. Your message is, Washington is corrupt, Washington is the handmaiden of the powerful. A lot of conservatives agree with that. But then you say this corrupt Washington that’s the handmaiden of the powerful should be much more powerful in regulating our lives. Why do you want a corrupt government bigger in our lives?

This is a classic “when did you stop beating your wife” trick question. LaGreca did a reasonable job answering, but I would have been shorter:

Adam Smith

Adam Smith, An economist, philosoper from 1723 to 1790. He's considered the father of the modern liberal economy.

Mr. Will, as a historian, I am sure you are familiar with the works of Adam Smith. In his book The Wealth of Nations he described how individuals pursuing their selfish ends were guided “as if by an invisible hand” to achieve the common good. I think we can call this the “Capitalist Manifesto”. But he also said that the “invisible hand” can only function within a system of laws and common morés.

Is it so unreasonable for the people to demand that their government institute and enforce laws to prevent people from turning our vital financial institutions into giant Ponzi schemes?

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