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Carl Sandburg fog

Fog over Chicago downtown

”…little cat feet…looking / over harbor and city…” :)

Sources

Carl Sandburg, “Fog,” Chicago Poems. 1916.

Tags weather clouds obscurity view cityscape

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Moon illusions

The moon, rising in the early evening, just above the rotunda at the Museum of Science and Industry. When I took this picture it was short of a full moon by a day or two:

The moon over the Museum of Science and Industry

There’s a long-standing puzzle about the moon when it is near the horizon: why does it look bigger? This is usually just called the “moon illusion.” The problem has so far not been definitively resolved by any modern scientific explanation, leaving it open to speculation by philosophers, amateurs, and polymaths. Also, not all people perceive the illusion in the same way. For example, I have seen the moon on the horizon that looked huge, but I didn’t find this to be true when it was next to the rotunda in this picture. Subjectively, it looked “normal-sized.” I believe this comes through in the photograph. But a quick image search for apparently large moons does show many near the horizon, or a surface-level object, that do look huge (the fact that this illusion–or the lack of it–can be carried through into photographs is a property worth noting–not all illusions do).

Optical illusions involving forced perspective take one or more objects and place them near a reference object, which deceives the intuition for size and space. There is usually something deceptive about the presentation of the reference, making the original seem smaller or larger by comparison. Maybe the moon’s appearance is another example of forced perspective. This illusion has been noticed for so long that the competing paradigms to explain it are well-established:

These include both the “apparent distance” theory

…the brain perceives the Moon when near the horizon to be farther away than an elevated Moon. Therefore, the brain calculates that the horizon Moon must have a larger angular or linear size (about 1.3 to 1.5 times larger) than when viewing the Moon when it is higher in the sky.

And the “apparent size” theory:

…when the Moon is low and close to familiar objects, such as houses, trees, and mountains, we already know or quickly estimate their apparent size and distance, then the brain incorrectly calculates the angular size of the Moon compared to the familiar objects on the horizon. When the Moon is elevated, there are no earthly objects to compare it to, so the brain perceives as being more distant and therefore, smaller than the horizon Moon.

Both explanations are from Robert Garfinkle’s lavishly comprehensive recent book on the moon, Luna Cognita (section 6.11.4, “The Moon Illusion”).

It seems to me like these solutions are trying to account for the moon’s paradoxical aspect when viewed in the traditional way: with the naked eye. Although the moon is the largest object in the sky, and it moves across the horizon each day or night, it never really changes size. The combination of motion and fixity of apparent size–this is not a normal property of most physical phenomena. Movement on the earthly plane is usually associated with some change in size. Also, to my knowledge, the moon is also the only object in the sky that that possesses both regular motion and any apparent size at all. We speak of brightness of the stars and planets, but they all appear to be points of light, closer to mathematical locations on a plane than three-dimensional objects. So the trouble arises with this object, the moon, that moves yet is not subject to growth or reduction, and which follows predictable, calculable cycles like the stars, yet retains the obvious imperfections of substance and matter (shape, texture, depth). It is not surprising that the mind/brain does not know how to treat it, and is tricked into applying standards of growth and change which the moon, in its own very strange class of objects, refuses.

Sources

Robert Garfinkle, Luna Cognita: A Comprehensive Observer’s Handbook of the Known Moon. Springer, 2020.

Tags lunar vision perspective

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Bare tree networks

More than halfway through April, and while it’s still cold, even Chicago can’t keep this up for much longer. Would it be strange to savor the end of winter? Maybe not the weather itself–what was interesting in December is much less so in April–but the appearance of winter?

An example: bare trees in winter have their own kind of beauty, especially in profile. Many of those trees are starting to show their buds and seeds.

emergent catkins on a cottonwood tree
Emergent catkins on a cottonwood tree

Within weeks they will become entirely different objects. Bare trees are networks on the way to their vanishing point, a swirl of diminishing lines, beginning with their trunk, continuing to their largest limbs, their branches, twigs–they’re gone.

In spring they will be waving masses of color, more like solid objects, able to conceal the truth–impossible to hide in winter–that they are mostly made of air.

Tags winter ending beginning season tree growth

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More spring ephemerals

I discovered a large patch of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in Chicago’s Washington Park during the 2020 pandemic year, when I spent a lot more time walking around, both with my son and on my own.

At their peak these flowers are unmistakable; their bell-like blooms look like they were designed by a fanciful sketch artist who was going only on the plant’s name. And their particular hue of blue is, at its best, almost neon, a brightness so distinctive that it seems unnatural. Here’s a patch from another location last year, on April 18th, that gives the idea:

The patch in Washington Park is not there yet, as of two days ago. They looked like this:

Although this spot has dozens of the flower, when I went out there two days ago to look for it, I was still surprised to see it beginning to re-emerge. Many of the leaves are reddish or purplish as they come up. This is caused by a pigment, anthocyanin, whose purpose remains incompletely understood.

Its presence in high levels often corresponds with a transitional state. Most red leaves on trees in the fall are caused by the predominance of anthocyanin. It also causes the flower buds of the Virginia bluebell, which are just becoming apparent on a few of the plants, to start out pink:

What is it about seeing a plant in its early state? You have to know what it will become to appreciate it. And yet it’s there, just as alive in its ordinariness. I think of a phase like this as a reminder of all the worthwhile things in nature that happen to be invisible. At any given time, most beautiful things have either faded away, retreated into the ground, or concealed themselves in an unremarkable form.

Tags flowers spring beginning color

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Nested worlds

This well-known photograph can be seen at the entrance to Chicago’s Field Museum:

Source: Karen Bean, Field Museum Photo Archives tumblr account. Original.

It was taken by the photographer Charles Carpenter on the museum’s opening day, May 5, 1921.

What struck me the first time I saw it was not the large crowd, extending further east and west than the picture shows, or the single figure in the foreground, showing no interest in the queue at this moment, or the huge and purpose-built new building. What I saw was the denuded landscape around the new museum; bulldozed muddy dust, marked by piles of occasional leftover construction debris.

The site is a world in between acts; the swamp and wetland that were here before Chicago are gone, the same for the work sites or houses or tenements that predated this location near Grant Park (I wasn’t able to find what exactly was in this site before).

This picture also seemed like a very Chicago image: the building is a picture of optimistic strength, amidst an environment that has been wiped into an unrecognizable blank slate by the railroad. The ground has been literally carried away amidst waves of Chicago industrialization.

While I was hunting for a copy of Carpenter’s picture, I found another set from the Field Museum library archives which shows the long and awkward process of moving the museum’s artifacts from the Palace of Fine Arts Building in Jackson Park (now the Museum of Science and Industry) to the Field Museum’s current location.

Source: The Field Museum Library (flickr account)

They had to construct a temporary railroad for the new Field Museum just to get all the specimens in. Trains and railways exist on principles of interchangeability, but these treasures do not. You can see their superhuman proportions slamming into the too-practical spaces of railway transport. Totem poles were not meant to travel by rail:

Source: The Field Museum Library (flickr account)

Each boxcar contains its own nested world. Reconstructed skeletons of extinct creatures, geodes recording lost epochs, taxidermied beasts from some safari, sacred goods; terrariums. Before these specimens were specimens, they lived in the open air, on ground just like that where the museum was built. Now that ground is empty, and these worlds are recreated inside the museum, miniature controlled swamps, grasslands and artifacts, alongside each other in same room, little recreated scenes limited by the museum curators’ abilities to imagine them. The diorama remains a major mode of presentation for the museum today. The pictures of constructing and repopulating this building out of gravel are a nice record of the artifice that goes into creating a museum.

Source: The Field Museum Library (flickr account)

Tags museum chicago past renewal new

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The lily around the corner

I came across this plant starting to flower when I was walking through my neighborhood in Chicago over the weekend.

trout lily

I believe it’s a trout lily (Erythronium albidum or americanum) They’re rare flowers to find in cultivation, because they’re very slow growers with a small ecological niche. ‘Woodland ephemerals’ sustain themselves by blooming early in the spring, before the forest canopy leafs out, and disappear into background greenery by the summer.

Their seeds are difficult to germinate (multiple years of lying dormant in a cold, wet place); they grow slowly, and they flower even slower. One plant nursery quotes William Cullina, author of the very good Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers, that they might take five years or more to flower for the first time.

A yellow trout lily in bloom. Note the mottled leaves. Source: Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain. Source

By electing to grow so early, these flowers distinguish themselves; when most plants still look asleep and bare, the trout lily shows its vibrant, maroon-flecked leaves.

It’s great to see someone treating a yard as a preserve, a place to build up rare and unusual plant types which usually exist in parks far from the city.

Sources

Tags flower ecology woodland neighborhood city nature

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Two thoughts on the self and others within intellectual life

Zena Hitz:

I have tried to describe what learning looks like stripped of its trappings of fame, prestige, fortune, and social use. It gives us the splendor of humanity, both individual and collective. If it is for its own sake, we mean that we pursue it not because of external results but because of what it does for the learner. But should we understand this effect on the learner as the grasp of the object of the desire to know, taken all on its own? Or is the goal of learning for its own sake rather the connection with other human beings or with a transcendent being–in other words, the learner’s connection with a wider community of knowers beyond himself? I admit that I am not able to settle this question to my satisfaction. (47)

Karl Ove Knausgaard:

…no matter what I read and write, those activities are, in their best moments, selfless, transporting me into that somnambulent, near-unconscious state in which thoughts think themselves, liberated from the self, yet full of emotions, and so, in a negative or perhaps more exactly a passive way, connected with the surrounding world. Occasionally, in what I have read about, but never myself experienced, that feeling of connection is to the universe and is religious ecstacy, the overwhelming sense of the divine, but more usually the connection is to the we, to the other in ourselves, which can come forward only when critical remoteness is lifted. (from the essay “Inexhaustible Precision”)

Sources

Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of Intellectual Life (Princeton, 2020)

Karl Ove Knausgaard, In the Land of the Cyclops. (Archipelago Books, 2021)

Tags knowledge learning contemplation

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The commonplace book, then and now

Charley Locke with a recommendation for keeping a “commonplace book.” Some of its earlier forms:

Commonplace books are hardly new. In the Renaissance, readers started transcribing classical fragments in notebooks, bringing ancient writings into conversation with their own lives. After his wife left him in 1642, John Milton processed it in his commonplace book, chronicling a reading binge about bad marriages. Arthur Conan Doyle transcribed criminology theories in his, and then gave Sherlock Holmes his own commonplace book, filled with intel on up-and-coming forgers. But the idea of a personal intellectual database fell out of style as printed material became more accessible to a broader audience. You could just look at a copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Today you can scroll through inspirational quotes on Instagram.

The author has kept one for a decade, and sees it as a relief from the hyper-online, always-disclosing, public internet personality:

It’s an admittedly different approach from my generation’s inclination toward full-frontal accountability. Daily diary apps and self-improvement podcasts and confessional Instagram stories evince a belief that to grow as a person you have to be entirely, unflinchingly forthcoming. But I couldn’t catalog my flaws without flinching. And I don’t think I need to. That’s part of the point of reading, I think: When I find myself too earnest, too impatient, too much, I can be in conversation with other minds instead. Keeping a commonplace book feels like a kinder way to grow, by wrestling with the articulations of others in the open as I hopefully adjust myself within.

Tags diary record sources reflection

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Walking every street

I’ve never been to Peoria, and even though I live in Chicago–which some have argued is a state of its own–I do consider myself an Illinoisan. So I paid attention to this article about two women from Peoria who succeeded in walking every street of their city:

…Walton Road was the only public street in Peoria, Ill., that Mary Hosbrough and Jennifer Jacobsen-Wood had not walked. So, before dawn on a Friday in February, the pair set out through the slush to conquer that stub of concrete on the fringes of the city limits, pausing only to take a few photos and return a runaway shopping cart to a Walmart corral.

Walking every street, no matter what–as a venture seen all the way to completion, this sounds tedious. I walk most places I go, too, but there’s a big difference between walking everywhere you have to go in town, and walking everywhere there is to go.

Still, if you’re up for it, a walk marked by such thorough dedication seems worth it. If walking does one thing, it diminishes the sense of empty space, growing the proportional sense of place, all with distinctions and features open to description. As these women found out, sometimes noticing a place gives one the standing for ordinary description :

Sidewalk coverage in Peoria is spotty. Drivers can be oblivious to pedestrians.

But walking will always show things hidden. The price of moving faster than a walk is not just the cost of fuel to get there, but the loss of something seen along the way

…surprising delights (like the plastic coyote stationed without explanation near a golf course)

“Walton Road,” the last unfinished street in their project, reminded me of Walden, another work of art/performance with a figure who strolls everwhere:

“I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle. In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor’s to gossip.” (Thoreau, Walden, “The Village,” 167)

Sources

Thoreau, Walden. Princeton, [1854] 2016.

Tags walking movement slow speed thoroughness detail

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Accounting for the irrational

Gustave Doré, “High on a Throne,” from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Source. Public Domain. Original.

I’ve sometimes thought that the humanities are best positioned to show their worth in times when the irrational, the inexplicable and the absurd are at their most conspicuous. And if there were any doubt about whether this is one of those times, the war in Ukraine has ended it.

I am talking about the big-tent humanities here: both the creation of arts and culture (the work of artists), and the study of these activities (i.e., the work of professional critics, audiences, and academic humanists).

The humanities may not help us make sense of the irrational (that would be a contradiction in terms), but they do give it form, maybe even transform what is frightening about it into something briefly beautiful.

Still, the humanities may not be useful with respect to the irrational, because they do not reduce the presence of the absurd. But I would argue that a culture that embraces the humanities is healthier than one that devalues them, because a culture with a rich humanistic tradition is likely to have a more expansive appreciation for its own dark side; that culture is in greater touch with its own irrationality.

Tags humanities war

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