Monthly Archives: January 2016


Dear friends,

For several years now, I had the privilege to talk about my hikes and pilgrimages at the Spirit of the Senses Salons.  One of the longest hikes was the 600 miles long pilgrimage in France, the Voie de Vezelay two years ago.  Last year, I walked the Camino Primitivo in Spain, the original pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Beginning of March this year, I will start the pilgrimage of the 88 Temples in Shikoku/Japan. Many years ago, I heard about this ancient pilgrimage route going back to the 9th century circling around the 4th largest island of Japan in an over 800 miles loop. I never thought that I will be able to do it myself – there was the hindrance of not knowing the Japanese language, the pilgrimage itself seemed too long, too foreign and contained too much uncertainty. 

Despite all these concerns, over the last couple of years, the Shikoku pilgrimage became more possible and took on form.  One big factor was the invitation of my Japanese friends Yuko and Shigeo to visit them in Tokyo. They will travel with me to the start of the pilgrimage and walk with me the first couple of days.  Another Japanese friend told me about the very old tradition to help the Ohenro (pilgrim) in need on the way. Those two factors gave me the courage to do the step into the unknown. 

My intention is to walk with an open mind and firm ground under my feet. I allowed myself to take two months to finish my pilgrimage (the average is 45 days) in order to write, take photos, not to be stressed for time.  Every day (if there is internet connection) I will poste one haiku (Japanese poem) and at least one photo to catch the mood of the day.  It would be great if you would walk with me and Kukai the 88 Temple pilgrimage. (Kukai is the name of the 9th century Saint in whose footsteps the pilgrims walk.  It is believed that Kukai is walking with every pilgrim on the way).

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In the year to come, plausibly, but almost certainly within the next few years, physicists will detect tremors in space-time—or, to use the scientific term, gravitational waves. Through gravitational waves we will be able, for the first time, to monitor some of the most violent, dramatic events the universe has to offer.

My prediction is inspired by an extraordinary instrument, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which is operated by Caltech and MIT. LIGO is designed to detect extremely tiny changes in the distances between a few pairs of mirrors. The numbers are mind-boggling. The mirrors are four kilometers apart, and the distances between them are expected to change by less than one thousandth of the diameter of a proton. All kinds of things can jiggle mirrors, but gravitational waves produce a unique pattern of changes, so their signal can emerge from the noise.

It is poetic that this first observation of gravitational waves will coincide with the centenary of Einstein’s prediction that they exist. They’re a logical consequence of his general theory of relativity. According to general relativity, space and time aren’t rigid structures but form a kind of elastic medium—an ubiquitous cosmic Jell-O.  Massive bodies cause stress in space-time, and the distortion they produce affects the motion of other bodies. This is how general relativity accounts for gravity.

But Einstein carried his reasoning a major step further. As massive bodies move, space-time tries to dance to their tune. But the cosmic Jell-O has inertia, so it can’t follow rapid motions perfectly. Some of its distortions break free, take on a life of their own and spread at the speed of light. This is the origin of gravitational waves.

Space-time Jell-O is far stiffer than steel, so it takes enormous forces to produce significant tremors. (Memo to wormhole and time-­travel fans: Bending space-­time is hard.) Even with LIGO, we can only hope to observe gravitational waves produced by extremely massive bodies in extremely rapid motion.   These waves signal spectacular events, like the death throes of binary systems involving white dwarfs, neutron stars or black holes.

LIGO eventually should be able to detect pulses that emerge from such catastrophes anywhere within our local group of galaxies. No doubt we’ll discover, once again, that the universe is a strange place.

Dr. Frank Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.”

This essay originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

Boarding 747 1


by Richard Nilsen

Alvin Toffler started us thinking about the churn of innovation in his 1970 book, Future Shock, which now may strike us a quaint because the rate of change has only gotten faster. We look back at 1970 and think — they were still plonking away with typewriters, and using telephones with wires attached. 

Or, you watch a movie like Desk Set from 1957 with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, which features a gigantic room-size computer named EMERAC and realize that most of us carry around a smart phone in our pockets that offers computing power at least a thousand times greater. 

(It is said that when Apollo 11 went to the moon, the computing power on board was less than that of a Gameboy. It had about 64 kilobytes of memory and operated at a speed –if you can call it that — of 0.043 MHz.)

My own grandmother liked to remind us that she was born before the Wright brothers flew and lived to see those astronauts walk on the lunar surface. That is the stunning rate of change we have come to know and expect. 

Time moves forward ever faster and technology advances exponentially, so we may forget that there is another force in culture that functions like dark matter to the dark energy pushing things outward: There is an inherent conservatism to culture. I don’t mean political conservatism, but a lingering of longstanding patterns of thought and behavior, usually unnoticed.

Choo Choo train

Choo Choo train

Think of a young child playing with his choo-choo train. It is likely the last person in his ancestry who ever actually saw a steam engine pulling a freight train was his great-grandparent. It has been more than 60 years since such locomotives had any role in commercial rail traffic. Yet, there is his mother, running the little wooden toy back and forth on the carpet, saying, “choo-choo, choo-choo.” There is delight on the child’s face.

Or consider that even wooden churches are as likely as not to have windows with pointed arches. The shape sings out sacredness, even though it no longer has any engineering or architectural function, as it did in the 12th century, when it was a stunning technological innovation.

I am writing on a keyboard that was created not for the computer, but the typewriter, and although there are no longer any metal keys to be tangled, I still punch out the letters on a QWERTY keyboard, designed to avoid those tangles. 

How about the T. rex? From Jurassic Park to Jurassic World, this most iconic dinosaur is common currency in our culture. Every kid knows what it is and calls it by its Linnean name. There are two related persistences in this fact. 

Turdus migratorius, American robin

Turdus migratorius, American robin

First, there is the hangover of Medieval Latin — a vulgarized version of the classical language that was much expanded from its original form and subsumed many non-Roman words into its vocabulary, especially from Greek. All through the Middle Ages, Latin was the lingua franca for science, diplomacy, law and church. To be literate was to speak — or at least write — Latin. We still use Latin for the “scientific name” we use to hide the identity of the robin from the hoi polloi. It is Turdus migratorius. As we are allHomo sapiens and we seem never to escape intestinal distress from the E. coli bacteria. 

The fact is, Latin is still the best way for botanists and zoologists to specify what animal or plant they are talking about. A French scientist can write to a Chinese scientist and they will know they mean the same thing.

Medieval lion

Medieval lion


The second persistence is more pervasive. The scientific name, or binomen, that we give to animals and plants is just the low end of a hierarchy of classifications we give, so that Homo sapiens is just the genus and species name of an animal that falls under the family hominidae, the suborder haplorhini, the order of primates, the class mammalia, the phylum chordata in the kingdom of animalia. Our pet dog is also an animal, a chordate and a mammal, although he shunts off onto a trunk line called carnivora, and a family of canids, and a genus Canis, species lupus, subspecies familiaris. Cave canem

This system of higher and lower classes is a vestige of one of the most central and persistent thought-habits of our culture. People — the hoi polloi, not the scientists — like to think of evolution as a ladder, upon which humankind stands on the highest rung. Below us, stretched out to the lower depths, are the lower forms of life. The dog is lower on the “evolutionary ladder” than we are, but the frog is lower than the dog, and the slug is lower than the frog. 

Of course, there is no higher or lower in evolution, just changes better or more poorly adapted to changing local circumstances. But we nevertheless cannot help but think that we are the top of some hierarchy. 

Even in demotic usage, we would easily say of a man who doesn’t whistle at a passing woman, that he is “more evolved” than the hardhat who does.

This is a relic of a persistent idea developed in the Middle Ages once called “The Great Chain of Being.” In that chain, everything in God’s creation was either higher or lower than something else. Parsing out these differences sometimes sounds like a lawyer weaseling his way to an acquittal for his client, or Bill Clinton asking what the definition of “is” is.


So, animals were higher on the chain than plants, who lorded it over rocks and minerals. People were above animals, angels above people and God above all. Amongst plants, the rose was considered the top form, and so was higher than, say, a dahlia, the same way a king was higher than a duke, higher than a yeoman, higher than a peasant. Men, of course, were superior to women and women to children. Among animals, it was usually the lion who was considered “king of the beasts.” Angels had their orders, too. You pick up two rocks from the ground and argue which of the two was superior to the other. It can get quite silly. Gold, by the way, was the top mineral, considered “noble,” because it didn’t rust. 

Yet, the trope remains, buried in our culture and language like raisins in a scone. There it is, ensconced in religion, where for many fundamentalists, the husband has “dominion” over the wife. 

It also sits on your computer, where a file sits under an application, but over a document — it is all hierarchical. 

There are so many persistences in culture that it is hard to even recognize them as they pass. Neckties, for instance. What are they all about? They serve no actual function, yet we feel compelled to wear them when we want to be taken seriously. In America, we use feet and inches instead of meters, pounds instead of kilos, Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, quarts instead of liters. We like the measurements we feel familiar with. The metric system feels just as familiar to a Frenchman, who would be confused by an ounce of Roquefort cheese. 

We keep pennies in our coinage, although they are useless. We just don’t want to give them up. We buy pink jammies for baby girls and blue for boys. Pagan ritual persists even in Christian holy days: Need I mention Christmas trees or Easter eggs? 

How long can culture hang on? We wear our wedding rings on the fourth finger of our left hands because ancient Egyptians believed the vein in that hand ran directly to the heart. We divide the clock  up into 12 and 24 hours, 360 degrees, because that is how the circle was first divided in ancient Mesopotamia. That’s how long this stuff can go on. 

Although stage plays were divided into acts and movies aren’t, screenwriters still us the “three-act” template to write film scripts. 

 INBOX | Logout [Compose] [Check Mail] [Addresses] [Search] [Settings] [Help] Space used: 1% of 2 GB Read Message Reply Reply All Forward Move to: Prev | Next From: Richard Nilsen Add to Addresses Block Sender Date: Thursday, December 31, 2015 4:08 PM To: Thomas Houlon Add to Addresses Cc: Richard Nilsen Add to Addresses Subject: JPEGS for article Size: 5 MB Attachments: Boarding 747 1.jpg (774.1 KB) Choo Choo train cartoon.jpg (372.5 KB) Fixing greens South Africa.jpg (1805.6 KB) Lion medieval.jpg (1160.5 KB) Nieuport 27.jpg (266.5 KB) Turdus migratorius.jpg (940.2 KB) Open Attachment Boarding 747 1.jpg Open Needs no caption Open Attachment Choo Choo train cartoon.jpg Open Choo-choo train Open Attachment Fixing greens South Africa.jpg Open Fixing greens, South Africa

Fixing greens, South Africa

When I was in South Africa, many years ago, I saw women outside mud huts preparing greens the same way they are still done in North Carolina. I heard them cleaning the sidewalks of the brand new shopping mall in Thohoyandou singing improvised call-and-response blues songs. It was enlightening for me to see how much African culture persists in American black culture. 

Songs from our agricultural past, lauding springtime and the moon and June, make little sense to our urban present, where nocturnal lighting is more likely sodium vapor. We move from Dinah Shore to Taylor Swift, but we still maintain the three-minute song. 

Superstitions are another persistence. In Navajo culture, there are even more superstitions and those more closely held, than the many we have in Anglo culture. I remember talking with my colleague at The Arizona Republic, Betty Reid, who was born and raised on the Reservation, about these superstitions. Betty is a thoroughly modern reporter and she laughed at the superstitions. No, she doesn’t believe in such things. It is the old people who hold on to them, she said. “But I do them, anyway.”

It is the integration of the old and new that may be the most fascinating. Think plastic walnut woodgrain. 

Stirrup on biplane

Stirrup on biplane

When we board a 747, we do so from the left side of the plane. Why? Because cavalry officers were primarily right handed. The historical continuity is pretty clear. Because most people are right-handed, cavalry officers wore their sword and scabbards on their left side, to be easily drawn across their bodies. When they mounted their horses, they did so from the left side because the dangling swords would otherwise get in the way. When airplanes were first introduced to the military in World War I, they were called the “air cavalry.” They still are, when we discuss Army helicopters. The biplanes that served in World War I were thus traditionally boarded from the left side, as if they were flying horses. Many of those planes actually had stirrups for the pilot to mount as he climbed into the cockpit. This tradition of left-boarding continued even into the Korean War, when Sabre-Jet pilots climbed a detachable ladder — from the left side — into their cockpits. And we now get onto our jet flights from the same side.

Culture changes, but nobody wants to be caught with a beta version of untested software. 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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